Would Your Friends Stay if You Converted? October 11, 2008

Would Your Friends Stay if You Converted?

This week, I’ve been reading Dan Barker‘s fantastic new book Godless: How an Evangelical Preacher Became One of America’s Leading Atheists. I’ll write more on it later. In the meantime, one particular passage jumped out at me.

When Dan finally made the leap from fundamentalist preacher to atheist, he let all of his family and close friends know that he was no longer a Christian courtesy of a letter explaining his decision.

The responses included people who wrote that he was never a Christian to begin with, that said they were disappointed in him, that they would pray for him, etc. Many of those friendships were lost.

Only a handful remained intact (or became stronger in the process).

Dan writes this about the situation:

The letters I received and the conversations that followed my “coming out” displayed love, hatred, and everything in between. Many friendships were lost, others transformed, and still others strengthened. Of all the attempted to get me back into the fold, not a single one had any intellectual impact. Although I was saddened at having discontinued some relationships, I found I did not miss them. I didn’t think I was smarter than these people were; we just chose different priorities and grew apart. I suppose it was somewhat like a divorce — even though there were good times and happy memories, once it’s over, it’s over.

I’ll tell you, this is a great way to test your friendships. Imagine doing this yourself. If you are an atheist, try telling your friends that you have become a born-again preacher. If you are a lifelong Republican, announce that you have switched parties. How many of your “friends” would stay your friends? Some undoubtedly would, because your friendship is a true horizontal peer relationship of unconditional admiration and enjoyment of each other’s person. But some of them would not, because you (and they) would learn that the arrangement was contingent on something external to the relationship, such as belonging to the same club, faction, philosophy or religion. As soon as that external link disappears, so does the artificial bond that brings you together. That’s when the friendship loses its point. But this is good, because then you know who your friends are. If they were true friends, they would have gladly accommodated your freedom of choice even if it made them uncomfortable. You can’t lose something that was not there in the first place.

Those are great questions. So let’s put them out there.

If you are an atheist, how many of your relationships would change if you became a die-hard Christian? (Would any change for the better?)

Same deal to Christians — what would happen to the bonds between your friends and family if you suddenly became an atheist?

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  • I really don’t think any of my friends would no longer be friends if I became a born again christian.. Though I don’t think anyone that knows me would believe me for a minute if I told them that, even if it were true.

  • Adrian

    I dunno. As I’ve grown older I find that the number of close personal friends has shrunk to single digits. I see most of my friends because we share common interests so if those interests were to disappear then I think so too would our friendship. It wouldn’t happen overnight but it would happen. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that and I don’t think it means I’m not a true friend, it just means that people change. Why should I dogmatically attach myself to a person when it’s their personality and company that I enjoy?

    That said, religion and politics aren’t that big of an issue. If a friend took up New Age or something that would be fine; if he insisted on talking about it all the time then we’d just fight and that would be a big issue.

    I’ve heard these comments about “true friends” before from people who’ve come out as gay or as atheist and I wonder if it’s a way of reinforcing their decision by making people who disagree seem more petty. I dunno.

  • If I became a born-again preacher, I would be insulted if my friends *did* stay my friends.

  • Lol at Abbie =]

    I’m pretty sure that out of all my friendships, one would probably stay the same and the rest would strengthen. I live in Texas, and only have one ridiculously close friend that’s an atheist – We’ve been friends since third grade to junior year in high school. Everybody else is either Christian, Buddhist, Muslim, Wiccan, Mormon, or a vague jump-from-agnostic-to-Christian-to-agnostic.

  • Not many changes, I think, assuming that I keep the same policy that I currently have about respecting that my friends must have good-enough reasons to believe what they believe. But then, I already am friends with two deeply convinced Christians — and they’re well-woven into my circle of friends — so my social circle already spans faith and non-faith. Me switching would be deeply interesting to everyone — and undoubtedly disturbing to many — but probably not out-and-out turbulent.

    (Besides, I already went through that process of discovering which friendships were real and which weren’t back when I came out as a lesbian. So.)

    But interesting side note — when new-to-me people tell me they’re Christian, one of my first reactions is “Ah, this isn’t going to go anywhere; when she realizes I’m queer, that’ll be the end of that.” I was comparing notes with a Christian friend about when she and I first met, and it seems that I disclosed I was queer before she disclosed she was a Christian. And it seems that when I told her I was queer, she thought, “Ah, this isn’t going to go anywhere; when she realizes I’m Christian, that’ll be the end of that.”

    That conversation floored me a bit: I’d always understood the feelings of rejection flowing in one direction only.

  • I’ve heard these comments about “true friends” before from people who’ve come out as gay or as atheist and I wonder if it’s a way of reinforcing their decision by making people who disagree seem more petty.

    Adrian, I’m not sure what you mean. Could you expand on that?

  • If they were true friends, they would have gladly accommodated your freedom of choice even if it made them uncomfortable. You can’t lose something that was not there in the first place.

    I don’t think I agree with this sentiment. My friendships are, in part, based on shared values. A lot of my friends are political activists or writers, and a lot of what we share is social and political values. If a friend became a die-hard fundamentalist Christian — or for that matter, a Republican — it would mean that their values had changed so drastically that the foundation of our friendship would feel shaken.

  • As a former evangelical married to a Jewish man, I can say……no. Many of my “friends” were not my friends.

    And I pare off people year by year by having unpopular stances–even sometimes just trying to have reasonable non-ideologue political discussions.

    Sad for me, I guess.

    I bet I have single-digit real friends, too.

    Maybe most people do, if they’re honest.

  • Kaitie

    If I were to become a christian, or join any religion for that matter, most of my friendships would stay the same and a few might strengthen. Living in small town Missouri, all of my friends are either christian and would love for me to join them, or don’t really care about religion and wouldn’t really think about my conversion. These friends knew I was an atheist before we got close, so I know my religious preference doesn’t matter to them. Wow, this post reminded me how great my friends are! Thanks! I do wish I knew more atheists, hopefully I’ll meet them now that I’m in college…

  • I have to agree with Adrian and Greta Christine. What draws you to friends is something in common, whether it be your religion, your politics, or even a fandom. Once you lose that something you have in common, sometimes you don’t have enough in common to stay friends.

    My brother said a couple months ago that he’s lost touch with so many friends and that being Christian is what makes him keep up with other friends. Being Christian is a big part of who he is, but he made the assumption that Christians have deeper friend connections than others. I got understandably angry at this assumption, although I kept it to myself. The truth is that Christianity was such a big part of who he is that it doesn’t make sense for him to keep up friendships with people who don’t have that same passion. If we weren’t family, we probably would have drifted apart long ago. But see, there’s the connection between my brother and me – we’re family.

    It’s a matter of things in common and what’s important to you. If you’re a die-hard atheist, it’s going to be harder for you to make good friends with someone who is a die-hard fundamentalist Christian. Or a die-hard Democrat with a die-hard Republican. It happens, sure, but it takes extra work and usually a big something-else you’re both passionate about.

  • jacob

    Fortunately in Australia nobody cares to much. I am a strong atheist but my best friend is a christian who goes to church every week. Also my step mum is christian and she bought me the god delusion for Christmas. So none of my relationships with people are based on beliefs or what group you are in.

  • While I do have friends who are religious (and serious about it) and also friends who are Republicans (and very serious about it), the idea of testing a friendship is somewhat abhorrent to me. As some folks above have mentioned, friendships generally are based on shared opinions, experiences, etc. If you tear out that foundation, some of them must, by definition collapse. I don’t have so many friends that I wish to test – and possibly destroy – some of those bonds.

  • I didn’t lose any friends when I deconverted. (I didn’t really have that many at the time anyway.) I don’t think I would lose any today if I were to revert to Christianity. My girlfriend is an atheist, but she’s from socialist country and just doesn’t care about religion at all. But it would undoubtedly affect our sex life if suddenly thought that only sex inside sacramental marriage without any birth control was acceptable!!!

  • Oh, yeah, I forgot to say that I also think Dan’s suggestion is a bad idea. It’s cruel to put your friends through that for nothing. And what’s the point of weeding out friends who would abandon you? Do I have a limited number of seats at a party or something? Why break up friendships when they’re hard enough to form in the first place for some people. *waves*

  • Adrian


    Adrian, I’m not sure what you mean. Could you expand on that?

    Well, it’s a common psychological reaction to seek confirmation of our decisions once we’ve made them. When we look for a new car we look at all of the ads, read the different stats and see the pluses and minuses of all choices. Once we’ve dropped $20k then we tend to see only the positives in our choice and the negatives. After buying the Honda Civic, the styling of the Toyota Corolla looks more unpleasant than before.

    Right after making a very difficult decision which potentially (and actually) alienates people or in Dan Barker’s case, cost him his job there’s a pull to justify these changes. When we have a job we don’t like we see all of the advantages – security, comfort, nice co-workers, good commute, whatever – but once we quit the advantages which had formerly made quitting a difficult decision suddenly become so onerous that we wonder how we lasted one week let alone one year. If a decision costs us friendships then the friends who leave are somehow less moral and virtuous.

    As with anything I’m sure there are pulls from all sides so I was just wondering to what extent this is colouring their statements.

  • Dan Barker’s experience is very common, going from christian to atheist. I went from Mormon to atheist (labeling myself “not religious” and agnostic most of the last 12 years) and many of my friendships are either strained or gone. Some of the people I remain friends with that I grew up with in the Mormon church do not know of my status.

    I admire someone like Dan Barket for his stance. There comes a time in your life when you have to be honest with yourself and stop living a life of trying to please and appease everyone around you. The conflicts one can experience is not worth the time and effort it takes to play both sides of the fence.

  • It just depends. If they’re open and still accepting for me being a “heathen” and don’t preach to me, it wouldn’t change anything. If their personality changes because of it, to the point where they no longer have the same personality that you liked about them, then the friendship may end.

  • Aj

    There’s a strawman being set up here. A friendship isn’t based on such belonging to the same club, but that doesn’t mean something like a worldview is an “artificial bond”. If that’s not a part of who you are, and the relationships you have with friends, then I don’t know what is. If I were to suddenly change to a “born again” Christian I wouldn’t be me.

  • Amber

    If I were to suddenly confess to my friends that I was a die-hard Christian, most of my friends would stay, because most of my friends are self-professed ‘Christians’ themselves. Though, I would worry about my closer, atheist/agnostic friends, who would likely feel uncomfortable around me. I don’t think my friends would leave me solely because they disagreed with me, I think we would grow apart because it would become harder to see eye to eye.

  • QrazyQat

    If one changes from a loving, giving person who is either religious or atheist into a loving, giving person who is the opposite, so what. If, however one changes from a loving, giving person who is either religious or atheist into a hateful bigot who is the opposite I would expect friends to drop out.

    However, I think it’s far more likely for the loving, giving person into hateful bigot transformation is far more likely if one changes from atheist to religious, especially if one changes into “a born-again preacher”.

  • weaver

    I find I have a good set of friends and while some friendships are likely to transform, I do not believe I will lose any of them. (Unless I became an extreme christian activist)

    My parents would be thrilled though.

  • BZ

    All but one of my close friends are Christian, so I doubt anything would happen.

  • Pseudonym

    A fairly close relative became an agnostic, and everything is still cool. A sufficiently close relative became a polyamorous neo-Pagan, and everything is still cool. Plus, a lot of my friends are non-theists of one form or another. So I really doubt my family and friends would care.

    A bigger concern amongst my friends and family is if my values changed significantly, such as if I started not caring about the basic dignity of people. I may well lose a few friends then.

  • Sue Zaque

    I think if I became a “die-hard” Christian, nothing would really change, and the things that do change would change for the better. For example, my relationship problems!


  • The best atheist ever

    Well I guess they would say “Told you so” Which would defeat the whole purpose of telling them I converted… My parents would also be happy… (You might wonder WHY I have Christian friends… The answer is that I was a Christian when I became their friends, back in the 5th grade, but once I was able to make my own decisions ,7th grade or so, I realized that it was completely absurd to think that there was a super powerful being that wanted control over my personal life…

  • Joanna

    Depends on the definition of “die-hard” Christian. If I changed into one of those militant types, I bet I’d lose friends. If that included adopting socially and politically conservative attitudes, I’m sure of it.

  • Vincent

    religion (or the lack thereof) is not the basis of any of my friendships so I doubt I’d lose any if I suddenly became a christian, though I think my marriage would end.

    When I told the girl who was my best friend through high school and early college that I was now an atheist, she said something like “well I’m sure god has a plan for you” but has never spoken to me since.

  • cipher

    Over the past couple of years, as I’ve been knocked off the fence of agnosticism onto the atheist side, I’ve found it difficult to have relationships with people of faith. I can deal with someone who has a vague, amorphous belief in some sort of creator, or someone who thinks that “something is going on” but has no strong opinions about it – but someone who has a firm belief in a personal deity, I can’t deal with. I’ve recently had to end a couple of relationships. I suppose it says a lot about me, and it isn’t pretty. I’ve come to regard belief in God as the height of selfishness. I can’t see any way in which a thoughtful, sensitive, compassionate human being can reconcile the existence of God with the ocean of suffering in which we find ourselves immersed. Not that theists can’t be compassionate human beings, but I think they’ve got to plunge themselves into a state of deep denial in order to reconcile their beliefs with reality – and that’s what I have a problem with: “I’ll ignore Darfur, I’ll ignore the fact that babies were thrown alive into furnaces in the Holocaust because the Germans didn’t want to spend a few pennies on cyanide – just let me have my security blanket.” It’s weak, it’s selfish and I can’t deal with it at all; it makes me furiously angry. I guess it represents the limit of my compassion.

  • molly539

    I went through a period of searching for a couple of years which included studying with some Jehovah’s Witnesses. I became friends with the family I was studying with and attended their Kingdom Hall with them on occasion.

    However, I was also attending a pentecostal Assemblies of God church and had gone through a “born again experience”. One day, I called my JW friends to relate my experience and they were polite but a little cool. After that, I never heard from them again and if I tried to get together with them they were always busy. I guess they felt that if I wasn’t going to convert, why waste any more time on me.

  • Scott Lichtenstein

    I think oftentimes such a switch in personal beliefs is accompanied by a change in disposition–and it’s the latter, not the former, that causes the friendship to fall apart. And so, here’s my story:

    Growing up in North Jersey, I had a very close friend in high school who remained a fairly close friend through college. The friendship was sprinkled with a bit of romance at times, but it was mostly platonic. I was always a hardline skeptic with a very liberal social outlook. She was pretty skeptical herself but admittedly apathetic about most things political and religious. I thought the world of her, a really fantastic girl with a very open mind.

    Towards college graduation, she became engaged to a guy who was apparently further to the right, into the Catholic church, and much more “country” than you find in North Jersey. Long story short, she followed suit. Fine. Whatever. Who cares. Done and done.

    But it was when I saw her next (actually, at her engagement party and then at her moving away party) that I realized something was incredibly amiss. Her switch in beliefs was apparently accompanied by what I can only describe as a condescending, better-than-you attitude (a girl from North Jersey actually using the word “city-suckers;” what gives?).

    A girl who had at one point been tolerant of many diverse viewpoints now sarcastically mocked my recent decision to go vegetarian. God made man higher than animals–just look at the scripture! That was just an example, the end-all being that I didn’t know my best friend anymore. I quickly left the party and drove home in tears.

    So that’s a very roundabout way of expressing the point that it’s not simply a switch in religious beliefs that kills a friendship. Oftentimes the feeling that one has suddenly found “truth” provides a smugness that really irritates those around you…those who would otherwise be quite fine with your desire to explore.

  • Catie

    My friends would probably pick on me for a few weeks, just because I’m so firm in my non-belief as it is, and they’d find it pretty funny that I suddenly believe in God. But after that, I don’t think much would change. I have God-believing friends, none of whom are particularly religious or even really practicing. They would definitely find it odd if I became religious, but they would accept it.

  • aethertrekker

    I recently deconverted from Christianity two years after having spent four years at Oral Roberts University, a prominent charismatic Christian school. All but two of my friends are Christian, and they have stayed close friends. The only relationship that has been really impacted has been my relationship with my family, and members of the clergy I knew.

    Of course after four years at ORU, my Christian friends are honestly more openly negative towards Christianity than I am. They think God is real, but they understand doubt and distrust fanaticism. Good people.

  • Kelly

    I don’t know that it would affect my relationships much. I have few atheist friends, except for online, anyway! My friends and family are a pretty good split between liberal and conservative as well, (probably more conservative if I really counted, definitely more conservatives that I’m in regular, day to day contact with), so that probably would matter to much either.
    Overall, I’d say if I became a Christian, or a conservative, a lot of people would probably like me better.
    Ew. Just typing that gave me the willies…

  • Adam

    I always joke with my wife that if she becomes a democrat (again) or religious, then we’ll have to take different paths, but I say it in jest because we are both proud libertarians and atheists and all of our friends know it. We talk about politics and religion (or lack thereof) with all of our friends and even when we disagree, we agree to disagree.

    I think that is what makes friendships fun.
    In fact, I think that we tend to get along better with some Christians than any socialist leaning people out there. Especially with the elections coming up. The whole lesser of two evils thing irritates the hell out of me.

  • I used to be a Baptist minister’s wife before divorcing last year. I can tell you for sure that I did indeed lose a few friends. But I learned that the friends I lost were not nearly as great as the friends I gained. I feel a lot freer to be myself and to assert my opinions. Now I just say what I think, and those who want to be my friends, great. If not, that’s okay too. My new boyfriend is far better than my ex husband ever was. In church, you always hear about people who come to Christ and are much happier. For me, the opposite is true.

  • I don’t think my friends would care but I know that my partner would take the children and run if I became a Jehovah’s Witness. She think that they’re all crazy. Dangerously crazy.

  • Lynx

    Hmmm I don’t expect any of my friends would leave, though I can think of one I’d end up having rather heated debates with. Inside my family everyone would think I’m insane, but I wouldn’t expect any permanent breaks, though I don’t think my dad would take it very well.

    Now, if I became evangelical and tried to convert everyone, the thing changes rather quickly. I think plenty of people would find reason to distance themselves if I decided to go on a crusade for their souls.

  • If I became a fundy xtian, I’d be so different to how I am now that my friends would be perfectly justified in wanting to sever ties.

  • Polly

    Would Your Friends Stay if You Converted?

    I guess it depends on whether my friends would be willing to visit me in the sanitarium, because I’d have to be lobotomized in order to become a xian again.

  • So, this question only includes Christian? Going from Jewish (reform) to secure nonbeliever to Christian…. sounds like a big leap. My Skeptics Meetup friends would laugh for sure! I’m even laughing now at the idea!!!

  • It was long time ago. I can say that not one of my friends remain from my days as a christian. Most friendships evaporated soon after I became and atheist. If I were to convert back… I don’t really know. I have a few Atheist friends, but most the people I know are Christians. I think it would be like I joined the team again. I’d be welcomed back so to speak.

  • Badger3k

    My friends would think I’m crazy, but I wouldn’t be the first of our friends to go batshit insane (i.e. turn to superstitious twaddle). My “witch” (wiccan) roommate and neice might both look at me more closely, but that’s probably it. What would matter most is not what I believed, but how I acted on it. if I started preaching, I might lose friends, because most of mine are not patient with codswallop (and like my sister-in-law said, she was surprised the chapel for their wedding didn’t burn down from all the heretics in it.

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