An Agnostic-Atheist Explains How to Be Friends with an Unbeliever
Many of my Christian friends do not have any non-Christian friends, and I admit that it has been challenging for me at times as well. Our closest relationships are almost always based on common interests; so when we meet someone who sees Jesus as just another historical figure, it creates a significant gap for those of us who see Him as Lord of the universe.
Chris Martinez is not a Christian, but he is my good friend, as well as a great writer, father, and husband (check out his fiction blog at www.ChrisWMartinez.com). We’ve both had to overcome obstacles in learning to appreciate our differences over the five years we’ve been friends, but it has been every bit worth it.
I imagine that many of my readers have people in their lives who don’t believe in Jesus, and they would like to get to know them better. That’s why I’ve asked Chris to share his unique perspective on some of the ways that we, as Christians, can do that a little more effectively. Stick around – he’s got some great advice.
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: an atheist and an evangelical Christian walk into a friendship…
Ok, I’ll admit this setup has no punchline, but the outcome may surprise you all the same. I’m the atheist (more accurately, an agnostic-atheist) and Joshua, as readers of this blog already know, is the evangelical Christian. We met nearly five years ago and, despite our deeply divergent views, we’ve been friends ever since.
I never could have predicted becoming such good friends with Joshua because I, like many other non-Christians, hold some negative perceptions about evangelical Christians. First of all, most agnostics (and probably all atheists) are immediately put off by attempts to proselytize, and we suspect that’s what an evangelical Christian will do as soon as the moment presents itself.
Second, many nonbelievers disagree with evangelical Christians’ stances on some of the most contentious social issues of the day. I won’t rehash them here, but for a lot of atheists and agnostics, the positions evangelical Christians take on some of these topics seem nonsensical and backwards.
Despite those and other misgivings, I’ve often found evangelical Christians to be some of the most magnanimous people I’ve ever met. They seem genuinely to want to help the weak and vulnerable, and like people of other faiths, they often take on messy social problems that most other folks would rather ignore.
Joshua and I met through work, and it didn’t take long for me to learn that his faith was central to his life. Our friendship bloomed in part due to my curious nature, but also because Joshua’s faith was more than just words; his actions demonstrated the generosity, empathy, and decency that Christianity embodies in its best moments.
It takes two to make this kind of odd-couple friendship work. I’m sure Joshua has turned off other atheists and agnostics, just as I’m sure I’ve repelled other Christians. That said, here are some of the qualities I’ve found in Joshua that helped us transcend our differences. In fact, if both you and your non-Christian acquaintance have these qualities, I dare say a lasting friendship is not only possible, but likely.
1. Be kind and nonjudgmental.
If the non-Christian catches the sour whiff of self-righteousness from you, he or she will bolt away faster than a deer at the sound of a rifle shot. It’s actually pretty simple: just be a good listener and don’t approach the relationship with an air of superiority. Self-deprecation and a healthy sense of humor, too, can go a long way to establishing comfort and trust.
2. Don’t presume the non-Christian is less moral than you.
I know, I know, the whole belief-in-Jesus thing is the whole ballgame when it comes to a Christian’s understanding of morality, but rest assured, people like me have no problem holding ourselves to high moral standards without the benefit of religion. Yes, some of our views on the touchier issues might be an abomination to your moral framework, but trust me on this: if you regard a person who disagrees with you on one of those subjects as essentially evil, you will never get anywhere with them.
Actually, to borrow something I learned from Joshua about his faith, let me rephrase it this way: you should recognize yourself as every bit as broken as the nonbeliever. That not only allows you to have genuine empathy for the other person, it also might make you realize that he or she probably finds you morally wanting in some ways, too.
3. Be thoughtful.
Joshua’s earnestness was a big reason why we became friends. From the start, talking to him felt socially safe, and before long, we were having unguarded conversations on topics most people strenuously try to avoid.
Despite our deep disagreements on several controversial subjects, we have always gone out of our way to engage those subjects with thoughtfulness and respect. Sure, sometimes we cross boundaries or tempers flare, but our foundation of good will endures. If you engage each other thoughtfully, no matter what else happens, you and your non-Christian friend will learn more from each other than either of you ever could have imagined.
4. Be forgiving.
At some point, your atheist or agnostic friend will say or do something to anger or upset you. Regardless of who “started it,” you will find yourself feeling hurt, maybe even betrayed. Except in the most extreme cases, you need to find it in your heart to forgive your buddy.
Practicing forgiveness—genuine, difficult forgiveness—will not only strengthen your friendship, it will show that your actions are indeed consistent with your declared beliefs. In the eyes of the nonbeliever, you will have demonstrated the power of Jesus Christ’s message in the clearest, most undeniable way possible.
5. Embrace the journey.
Quite frankly, I don’t think I’ll ever share Christians’ beliefs about Jesus. I don’t know if Joshua is holding out hope that one day I might, but I am certain that’s not the only reason he’s remained my friend.
Our friendship has become so much more than the reasons we first entered into it, transcending our major differences and illuminating our even stronger commonalities. And now that I think of it, perhaps that’s the greatest lesson I’ve learned so far from this fascinating journey Joshua and I are taking together. Sometimes, the only way to build a bridge is first to take a leap of faith.
Chris Martinez is an attorney and writer in the Washington, D.C. area. If you like fiction, you’ll love his fiction blog, which you can find at www.ChrisWMartinez.com.