I recently found myself in an awkward, social situation. I was sitting in a public place with a small group of people who all knew each other, at least well enough to match names to faces. Some around the table were theists and some were not. One person mentioned a news story about suicide bombers, and another began to rant about how all the world’s ills were caused by religion. No one else at the table wanted to argue about religion, but this one individual needed no encouragement to continue in this vein for some minutes. Feelings began to run high. I tried to stop the rant short by pointing out the simple fact that not all ills are caused by religion, and not all that is done in the name of religion is an ill, but this just encouraged the ranter to get louder and start repeating himself. Two of my theistic friends started arguing back, forcefully. Afterwards, I took a few moments to try to speak to the ranting individual one on one, asking him why he felt so strongly that he had to override our conversation like that. He responded by repeating his rant a third time. What else should I have done?
Since it’s all over, this is one of those situations where all you can do is to find a lesson, and then try to apply it the next time. What else you should have done depends on what you wanted to accomplish. It sounds like you wanted the ranter to just stop talking, and I can understand that, because perhaps you felt embarrassed by his loud anti-religious rant in front of your theist friends as well as others outside your group, and perhaps you were uncomfortable with the tension as “feelings began to run high.” That is very understandable.
You said that no one else wanted to argue about religion, and so you tried to stop the rant short by… arguing with him. He simply repeated his rant which provoked others into arguing forcefully, and so your attempt backfired. We’ve all had the frustration of getting the opposite of what we intended.
Groups of friends, as they continue to meet over time, begin to have unspoken rules, expectations and boundaries called norms. For instance, the members begin to subconsciously sense what topics are welcome and what levels of tension are tolerable in the group. Each member tries to adjust as the norms become firmer, but if they cannot adjust, they leave the group. Sometimes certain individuals take on roles in response to those norms. Some are leaders, some are followers, some are provocateurs, and some are peacemakers, to name just a few. They are all important roles, and can be very positive.
I think you wanted to be the peacemaker, to protect the group’s overall mood from building up too much tension about a topic that might be divisive, delivered in a rant that might be too strident. Your group’s norms may not be firmly established yet, and with the mixture of theists and atheists, this subject might eventually become something they can comfortably discuss, or something everyone tacitly agrees to avoid. Which way it goes remains to be seen. The tension might have been created only by the tone and volume of the rant, or it might have been the topic itself, no matter how softly and politely it is ever discussed. Each group can have very different norms about such things.
Groups of friends talk about many things, but those few groups that can also occasionally talk about how they talk are the ones that can mature and become more satisfying, more tolerant of differences, and more beneficial to the members.
Perhaps you could experiment with talking to the whole group about this incident. Starting with yourself, encourage the others to be frank but still respectful about their feelings as it had played out. That way, your role as peacemaker will not just be about squelching discussions that might bring up tension, but instead can be about promoting good-natured honesty within the group. That will create a much more healthy atmosphere than simply avoiding or disallowing tension-provoking topics.
I hope your group of friends can continue to meet, even including the provocative ranter. It sounds like it has the potential of becoming a fulfilling and enjoyable resource for all the members if they can sometimes talk about how they talk, and how that affects them.