Guest Post: Misleading Silences

Before I introduce our guest post, I wanted to mention that Shanan’s brother-in-law was able to qualify for the surgery he needed. A sincere thank you to all who spread the word or contributed in some way to help Shanan and her family.

Today’s guest, Carrie, shares an experience many of us have had: losing a friend over religion.  One of the most frustrating aspects is that we accept our friends as they are, but sometimes, when they find out that we don’t believe, they’re not nearly as accepting of us. Has this happened to you? Do you have friends who don’t know that you’ve stopped believing?  Thanks to Carrie for allowing me to share her post here.  She is raising her three kids as secular Buddhists in Oregon, and she blogs at The Reluctant Atheist.


Last year I lost a friendship I had had since we were 12 years old. I made a crack about someone misbehaving in her religion, and she went off the deep end. It was then I realized–she still thought it was my religion.

Being a non-believer, unless you’re a militant atheist, means keeping your mouth shut–a lot. My parents don’t know I’m a non-believing Buddhist (secular Buddhist) because they are very old, and would be crushed if they were told I no longer believed in God. The same goes for many of my elderly relatives. Simply put, they don’t have enough time left to work through their grief over my non-belief. In this case, my silence is a kindness. Not because I don’t want to be truthful with them, but because I know them, and I know what hurts them.

People in my community don’t know because I live in a small town, and I’ve instructed my kids to keep mum, as well. Shunning is alive and well in America’s small towns. Just ask anyone who’s gay in the South. And, to be honest on that front, I’m not sure casual acquaintances should really be delving into each other’s spiritual lives. Frankly, I think a lot of the problems people are having is because their opinions are so “out there.”

But this woman–I’ll call her Sally–this was a different thing. I met her in middle school, and we stayed friends all through high school, marriage(s), children, everything. And over the last few years, she and her husband have been swinging really far to the Right, politically, to the extent that during the last presidential election, her husband unfriended me because I was putting up pro-Obama posts on FB. Once he added me back, all seemed semi-well, although I could see her right-wing opinions gaining steam. I realized that was not a topic we wanted to talk about. Still, there was plenty of other things to talk about: we each have three kids, we each work out of the home, and there was the past. Decades of the past. And all went okay until I made that crack. And it wasn’t even directly to Sally. She had somehow found a third-party thread that I had made a comment on days before.

When I saw the ferocity of her message to me, one thing was clear: I couldn’t fix this without un-becoming who I am. After a few months to ruminate, I did send a lengthy email to her husband, (who had told my husband he hoped we wouldn’t stay mad at each other much longer) laying out exactly who we are. And we’re not bad people, by the way. Non-believers, yes. Cynical, yes. But known where we live as the work-hard-for-the-community family, or the give-the-shirt-off-their-backs family. Because we (don’t) believe the way we believe, we understand how urgent each day is, and how important it is to improve something each day, whether it be the lot of a shelter dog, a friend who needs help renovating his house, getting some food to the food bank. We KNOW each day is precious and finite, and we don’t want to waste a single one. And, to be fair, they’re not bad people, either. I was never angry with my friend for her outburst because I understand the power of the paradigms many people operate under. Some of my friends are in religions so enmeshed that if they dared defect, they could lose their spouses, their children, their extended families, and for darned sure their friends.

But this was the first time it had happened to me. Sure, I had stopped moving forward on some newer friendships because I could see how it would go if I was honest. I could hear the disdain for non-believers in their voices. Because my children attended a religious school (which is, by far, the best in the area), they assumed we were believers, too. And, to be fair, I didn’t correct them. But at the same time, I have never lied about being a believer, either. I just kept silent.

Which is what I had done with Sally. Through summer vacation visits religion just wasn’t discussed. Since then, I have been posting more about my Buddhism, and my non-belief via subtle things that pop up on FB. They’re the parts of Buddhism anyone can agree on, but as they rack up, I am seeing who is still here, who is falling off. Honestly, I haven’t noticed that much of a difference. One of my friends sent me a sand Buddha one holiday. I get likes from people whom I was getting along with better anyway.

I think what I learned is that with certain friendships, those that are cured by time, that are more than casual, I need to put out there who I am and then, ironically, take a leap of faith. Change is the one thing in this life that you can always count on. A friend you may have had for decades may simply go in a totally different direction than you. It happens. It’s sad. I have mourned the loss of friendships because it’s important to have people who knew you when you were a child, though it’s simply not always possible.

I thought Sally and I would be friends forever. I didn’t anticipate her sharp turn one way, and I’m sure she didn’t anticipate mine. I didn’t share my spiritual views with her because I knew the reaction I would get (which I did), but I should have. That part of the fault is mine.

Non-believers are often silent, not because they are ashamed of who they are, but because they are afraid of the reaction they’re going to get from believers. They have a history of rejection, either personally, or based upon how they have seen other non-believers treated. Or, they may not want yet another lecture or sales pitch on the error of their ways. Trust me, we’ve all heard it over, and over, and over again. Still, others stay silent out of respect for the beliefs of others, knowing full well that respect may not extend back the other direction. Oftentimes, we’re just tired. Tired of the assumption that non-believers don’t have morals or the ability to know right from wrong, or can’t find purpose in a finite life, or, or, or. It’s mentally exhausting. So many non-believers like me have decided to live their lives as an example.

And with all the lip service out there from people who act in a completely counterintuitive way, I think people of all beliefs could do a little more of the money-where-the-mouth is thing.



29 responses to “Guest Post: Misleading Silences

  1. You know, the other day I was watching School Ties, the 1992 film about a Jewish kid who gets recruited to play football a high-class WASP boarding school in the 1950s. He doesn’t tell anyone he’s Jewish, and after becoming the high school football star, the coolest kid around, and the hunk that all the girls gawk at, the secret comes out. No more friends, Swastikas on the wall. When he complains to his roommate, who is almost tolerant, but not quite, he tells the Jewish boy wasn’t being honest because he didn’t say he was Jewish. Jewish people were different, and they had a right to know when one was among them.

    I think there are religious people, though certainly not all, who would like very much to make everyone wear a little tag saying that they’re christian, or muslim, or atheist, or whatever. For them to meet a “good” atheist is just too much of a threat to their own neatly packaged worldview. Religious means good. Atheist means bad. There, no gray, just the way they like it.

    Now, to be fair, atheists can unfairly judge religious people, too, but I wonder. Considering the majority of the USA is religious, I can’t help but feel that saying, “Both sides do it!”, is something of a false equivalence.

    I’m sorry you lost your friend. That sucks. But as it reads on one of my favorite t-shirts, “Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional.” A Buddhist saying, no?

    Hope you find lots of great and open-minded friends. And who knows? Maybe she’ll have a change of heart, but you can’t pretend to be something you’re not.


    • @deosullivan3 I like that saying. Really, all we can control is how we react to situations.

      I agree that atheists sometimes unfairly judge the religious, too.

      I think it’s no one’s business what a person believes–or doesn’t believe. Belief has no affect on one’s character, and there are so many assumptions.

      It’s funny because this weekend I was talking to an acquaintance who doesn’t know that I’m atheist. She was talking to me about someone she knew, calling her “that atheist.” It’s as if the woman didn’t deserve to be called by her name. Somehow, calling her “that atheist” was supposed to tell me everything I needed to know.

  2. Your second to the last paragraph really resonated with me!!! I was raised as one of Jehovah’s Witnesses and when I finally was disfellowshipped (ex-communicated) for questioning some of ‘our’ teachings, I had a lifetime of friends disown me. No one wanted to personally approach me — despite 25+ years of a reputation as a very prime, proper example as a JW — and learn what had happened or why. The minute the word was out, it was as if I had the bubonic plague. It took me 6 years to be able to remain calm when a JW came knocking at my door but with therapy, grieving and time, I can now say that is all so old news to me:) However, for all the reasons you mention, I have since often remained silent about how I feel on subjects, especially god. Earlier this month I “came out” on my business blog as someone who supports gays and I referred to myself as a humanist, which is a lot less controversial term than atheist. What prompted my stance and the end of my silence was something I had read in regard to blacks standing up for their rights. Putting up for sale a piece of “lesbian” art in my shop doesn’t quite compare with being black and sitting at a whites-only counter at Woolsworth, but for me it, it was a beginning to break my silence and it felt good.

  3. @Carrie Thank you for your post and sharing your experiences. I think you outlined an issue a lot atheists face in various parts of the country.
    For me, I fall into this category: “… unless you’re a militant atheist….” I am a very outspoken atheist both at home, in the community, and where I work. I also happen to live in the south (although I am not certain the greater Washington, DC, area constitutes the “south”), and I have faced a bit of what you mentioned.
    I’ve lost friends and family because of religion, or rather my unwillingness to conform to their perception of what I should believe. I’ve been called names because I am an unapologetic and vocal atheist. I believe it is the “unapologetic” part is what irritates the theists the most. They want atheists to be “apologetic,” as it then validates their sense of “righteousness” at the expense or my (our) dignity. I refuse to apologize for my atheism, and I think you should refuse as well. Not telling family what you believe when the topic naturally arises is tantamount to lying. I had a 77-year old grandmother, a devout catholic at that, who had to come to terms with the fact her grandson is an atheist. Thus, I truly understand and sympathize with your position.
    As strange as it may sound, one of my best friends is a Franciscan Monk… and one hardly gets more religious than that. He, however, has no problem with my being an atheist and I have no problem with his being a theist. We accept each other for what we are. I once spent a week at his monastery during his investiture. As you can see, one can have very religious friends and maintain long-term friends (last year marked out 30th anniversary as friends). As I learned from Brother Gus (mentor to my friend, and one of the wisest and gentlest people I ever knew): “Religion should not divide people, and the differences should be cause for inward contemplation and revelation. Real friendship doesn’t care if the beliefs are the same.”
    I find being open and honest with people regarding my atheism to be the best panacea for facing hostility. Moreover, I tend to turn the tables and castigate them for their “make-believe invisible friend in the sky” when the debate gets really ugly. It is amazing what happens when you approach them the same way they approach you. Granted, one has to have the stomach for this type of conflict, but it is often short-lived and makes the point very quickly. Be true to yourself. Don’t apologize. Don’t hide who and what you are you. You are only doing a disservice to yourself to make it easier on other people. I ask: What are they doing to make it easier on you?
    Equality and parity are the by-words in this discussion.

    • @Derrick, Carrie hasn’t weighed in, but I’d like to mention a couple of things. First, one of the things I love about this community is that there are so many different personalities and approaches to atheism. I admire your boldness and your unapologetic stance. On the other hand, I sometimes wonder if there are gender differences that shape our approaches. The public seems to be more forgiving of men who are forthright and militant. Perhaps this is why we don’t have “four horsemen” and a girl. Women who are assertive are considered bitches. Women (especially mothers) are supposed to create harmony, not cause conflict. So, I can see both sides. You want to be true to yourself, but you also want to respect the beliefs of others. Coming out is a threat to believers because atheism says, “I don’t believe in your myths. Your beliefs are unfounded.” And they have no way of defending themselves, so you hear, “I just believe in my heart….” It becomes a matter of finding appropriate boundaries. I love what your friend said here, and I hope this is what most people will one day believe:

      “As I learned from Brother Gus (mentor to my friend, and one of the wisest and gentlest people I ever knew): “Religion should not divide people, and the differences should be cause for inward contemplation and revelation. Real friendship doesn’t care if the beliefs are the same.”

      Friends should like you for who you are, not who they want you to be.

      • @Debbie Hmmm, that is an interesting perspective. I don’t always credit gender roles or gender acculturation as a prevalent factor (perhaps because I may be gender biased). This is something I need to further consider. Thanks for the reminder!

  4. Sex, politics, and religion. Three topics where one best tread lightly, if at all. Some people are very open-minded and love a good debate or discussion of opposing views. Others, not so much. It’s sad, but there are a lot of very intolerant, judgmental people in this world.

  5. I tend to talk about it in a very limited fashion. I once told a co-worker that I didn’t have any belief system. She was not a very nice person, but she would play nice until she got information from you. I didn’t realize this until it was too late. She started using my words against me but changing them. I never claimed to be an atheist, just that I didn’t follow any religion. She went to others in the company, telling them that my boss didn’t like me (I was leaving the company when my husband was transferred) because I was an atheist. I was furious!! I was already leaving but I made sure to speak directly to my boss and tell him that I didn’t feel it mattered what my beliefs were and that it had no bearing on my ability to be a good employee. I don’t know if he ever said that he didn’t like me or if that was just her spin on things (he was hyper religious at one point). It took him many more months to realize that she was not the good little Christian she pretended to be when one day, my replacement got a terrible phone call that her best friend had died. She shut her office door and fell to the ground. The nasty lady burst into her office saying “Jesus F***ing Christ, who died this time?” This is the kind of fallout I have tried to avoid since then. It sickens me to think that people can be this awful to one another in the name of religion. That’s a big reason I don’t want it in my life. It seems like it can be very toxic, especially to those who are a little (or a lot) unstable. Maybe someday we will be accepted. I hope so.

    • @Gina, Wow. What a story–and what a horrible person. I don’t even know what to say. First, spreading lies and then her reaction to someone’s loss. Awful. But, then, you and I know there is no correlation between morality and religious belief.

    • Oh and she was fired that same day 🙂 The boss told her she had 3 minutes to clear her stuff out and he escorted her to her car. He also told her she would have 1 month left on her insurance and he suggested she get herself some help with it.

  6. I can relate to this so much! A very similar thing happened to me three or four years ago. A friend I’d had since we were both 12 – a friendship that spanned thirty years, both of our marriages and divorces and remarriages and children – dumped me uncerimoniously and very suddenly. She never told me why, and in all honesty I never asked her because it all seemed so obvious to me – she had recently become “born again” and I had recently started being more vocal on FB about my non-belief. First she unfriended me on FB, and then didn’t send us a Christmas card that year, when every other year she always had. I’ve never heard from her in all this time. It hurt A LOT, but I also realized that if that was how flimsy our friendship was, then it was probably best that we parted ways.

    She wasn’t the only friend I lost when I “came out” as a non-believer, but that was the most significant friendship I lost.

  7. What I would be interested in hearing from people who, after a conversion to religion, have been dumped by atheist friends. Any believers out there have any stories to relate? Any non-believers want to admit shunning friends who found Jesus/Muhammed/Flying-Spaghetti Monster? Ok, not the last one 😛

    • @Lisa I can relate. It’s sad that being religious trumps being a good friend and a good person. But you’ve gained other friends after coming out. (Ahem!) 😉

      Good point, deosullivan3. How many atheists terminate friendships because someone is religious? Although it is hard to believe one could adopt religion after being an atheist! I can only imagine the mental gymnastics involved!

  8. Bubba Lou Stanwick

    I’m a nonbeliever, but not very vocal about it. In my experience, believers are much more likely to react to non-belief if that non-belief is expressed publicly by a non-believer. I think believers feel peer pressure from other believers to react to non-belief. If Carrie’s “friend” had found out from Carrie and it was a secret between them, her friend might not have reacted in such an extreme way. (That doesn’t justify her friend’s reaction, just explains it some.)

  9. This is a great post, thank you for sharing it.

    It reminds me of a non-religious lesson that it took me several decades to learn: sometimes you just have crappy friends. I had a few friends for over a decade that I knew very well and we spent a lot of time together over the years, going out of our way to get together often, regardless of where we lived and how our lives were going. In the end, I realized that when it comes to friendship, you will always have some back-and-forth but you have to make sure that the “and forth” is happening. If you find that you’re the only one giving – you’re the only one making the trip, you’re the only one picking up the phone, you’re the only one making an effort – then the other person isn’t actually your friend. They’re just a long-time acquaintance who is accepting your time and attention. When I resolved that I wouldn’t put forth more than 50% of the effort to maintain the friendship, it was amazing how quickly this group of people faded away.

    It’s a sad thing about life, but having someone who has known you since you were little is not always possible, like you said. In fact, as you’ve seen, sometimes it’s awful, because they still think of you the way you were back then, and you are a totally changed and different person now. Unless you have a friend that can grow with you – instead of you growing in spite of them – a friendship can’t always span the decades.

  10. There was a woman I dated who was so insecure about me discussing anything about my connection to atheism (in this case I was the staff advisor to the student atheist group on my campus) that if I forgetfully mentioned it as in the context of a recent Dept of Religious Life meeting, she’d blurt out, “Who CARES?!?”

    I don’t know any conversation I’ve had where if a topic of small talk was interesting to one person, I would have a problem with them sharing that. To this day I do not know if she didn’t like that I was openly atheist, or that it somehow made her feel uncomfortable about her own xianity.

    It went beyond philosophical views…I just thought it was out and out rude and decided I didn’t need that level of aggravation in my life.

  11. Great article. Most people at my work do not know that I am an atheist. My family knows, but my coworkers do not. I am worried about how this will affect my professional relationships.

    My last visit to my religious in-laws did not go well. We had a discussion about Duck Dynasty that devolved into an argument. I was told by my sister-in-law that might have to look for a hotel to stay in. I remained cool and calm during the debate. I must have gotten to her, as she suggested that I look for a new place to stay. I found that do be less than Christian.

    • I had Chattanooga relations (the husband of a cousin) ask me to leave for the ‘safety’ of their children. The other relatives were blown away but we just went to the local burger shack to hang.

      I think what unnerved them was that I was bonding with their young boy (discussing his interest in dinosaurs) and they didn’t want anyone godless to be thought of as a positive role model.

      It was truly awkward but I had the moral high ground as far as I was concerned.

  12. And then we have horrible situations like this:
    “Catholic Hospital Receptionist Tells Couple That Atheists Shouldn’t Be Allowed To Reproduce”

I'd love to hear your thoughts!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s