Ask Richard: Feeling Awkward When Given Religious Books July 6, 2009

Ask Richard: Feeling Awkward When Given Religious Books

Hi, Richard.

I have a lot of Christian friends who ask me to read their religious books – some fiction and others (pseudo)scientific or evangelical in nature. I feel very pressured culturally to take these books as it would be quite rude to refuse.

The problem arises when it’s time to return the book and the lender says, “How did you like it?” The blunt truth would be to say, “I hated it – what a waste of time!” but I could never be so tacky. But neither could I lie and say, “Oh, it was great!”

Where’s the middle ground here? Is there a polite way to tell the truth without making a big deal of it and shoving my disbelief in their faces? Or should I resort to the old trick of saying “I’ll read yours if you’ll read mine?” Help!


Dear Skepticat,

I get the idea that you’d prefer that they stop offering you that stuff entirely. You’re right, lying with “Oh it was great! I loved it!” is bound to get you deeper into trouble, and the brutal truth, “Don’t waste my time with this crap!” will probably also cause you trouble.

A truthful middle ground would probably be the best path. “Middle ground” of course doesn’t mean a half truth, it means being truthful with a mid-range of confrontational tone, so the effect is that they stop offering the books without stopping the friendship.

So maybe a casual statement like, “Oh, thanks, but I’m just not into that,” or “Oh it’s ok, but I’m just not interested in that right now.” It’s truthful, expresses a disinterest, and most likely it will not the first time they’ve heard it. A kind of shallow disinterest will probably turn them away gently where a strong rejection might stir up their sense of challenge or their resentment. Hopefully, eventually they’ll shrug their shoulders and look for someone else with whom to share their books, without starting The Shunning.

Only consider your idea of the book exchange if you really want to start an on-going atheist-Christian dialogue with these friends. Some of them may be mature enough for that, but others may not handle it in a positive, respectful way. In Mississippi you’re greatly outnumbered, and how many “discussions” with the immature ones are you willing to have?


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  • I also like “yeah, that’s not my thing”. It’s vague enough to give the impression that reading isn’t your thing, which is quite acceptable these days.

  • Pony

    Also, most of those books are so badly written that you can rip on that extensively without ever touching on the superstitious bits.

  • I just say “I can’t read”.

  • beckster

    As a teacher, I received lots of trinkets from parents. One parent gave me a very nice metal cross wall hanging that looked fairly expensive. I told her I greatly appreciated a gift, but that I wasn’t a christian and would not feel comfortable hanging it in my home. I then told her to please feel free to give it to another teacher who I knew was a very serious christian who had also helped greatly with her son. She said to me, “sorry, I didn’t realize you were Jewish.” I laughed and said I’m not that either and she got a confused look on her face, as though there are only two options 🙂

  • When someone asks you to read one of their religious books, say you’ll do so if they read your copy of “The Golden Compass” or Richard Dawkins’ “The God Delusion” .

    If they’re not willing to read your book, there’s no reason to read theirs, and if they do actually read your book, you can let them set the tone of dialog in the discussions of the two books.

  • Kurt

    I disagree that you should be so vague upon returning the book (unless you didn’t read it). It’s a great opportunity to start a discussion and poke a few holes in their worldview. No huge confrontation necessary, think of it as a chance to meet them on their home baseball field and unexpectedly knock a few easy pitches into deep left field, so to speak. If it plants doubts in their mind, great. If they don’t like even these mild questions, then you’re spared from reading more drivel – twice as great!

    Case in point, I read “The Shack” recently, in order to have a say in an ongoing neighborhood conversation. Without anyone getting angry or delving into my beliefs, I got a lot of head-nods (from good Christians) about how poorly various aspects of its theology were presented, and how they are impossible to believe. I got to point out contradictions in Christ’s behaviour that never fly when you point them in the context of The Bible. It was well worth reading to have these discussions.

    (That said, if you don’t have an interesting buddy to discuss it with, you can skip “The Shack”; the writing is painfully stilted and it leaves gigantic holes in the religious questions it pretends to address. It kills me that books like this sell millions of copies.)

  • Amber

    When someone asks you to read one of their religious books, say you’ll do so if they read your copy of “The Golden Compass” or Richard Dawkins’ “The God Delusion” .

    Funny thing, I did just that once. A woman in one of my physics classes asked me to read some of her books on Islam. I told her I’d only be willing to do so if she read The God Delusion. A few weeks later she brought the book back and told me how evil she thought Dawkins was. I smiled and haven’t heard from her since.

  • Skepticat


    Would you believe that “The Shack” is the very book that prompted me to write to Richard? Call it the icing on the cake.

    Thanks to Richard and all you who are providing suggestions and feedback!

  • Reginald Selkirk

    When someone asks you to read one of their religious books, say you’ll do so if they read your copy of “The Golden Compass” or Richard Dawkins’ “The God Delusion” .

    Another tactic would be to tell them you’ll read their book if they will sit and listen to your criticism of it when you’re done.

  • Bo

    I am a committed atheist, but if someone ever offers you Blue Like Jazz by Donald Miller, read it. It’s a great book, even if you disagree with the whole of it.

  • Chakolate

    A woman I know (and can’t afford to alienate) once gave me a book she said changed her life. It was trite and full of rehashed ‘life coach’ advice, with the same few ideas repeated over and over. Not a fresh idea in the whole thing.

    When I gave it back to her, I just said, ‘It just doesn’t speak to me.’

    In her typical (selfish) fashion, she said, ‘Oh, you’re not ready for it yet.’ Argh! But at least she didn’t bother me with it any more, and didn’t take offense.

  • justanotherjones

    I’m usually only given/offered religious books by people who already know I’m an atheist, so I feel no obligation to be overly polite or evasive. I have been given no less than three “modern” language bibles over the years, presumably because I’m too dense to understand the regular one.

  • Tom

    I think something we should consider is that people trying to push a religious book on you often don’t take a simple “no” for an answer. Many of the phrases suggested are a good way to start to demur, but don’t account for what to say when pressed. “Oh, but you simply have to, this is so important” they’ll say, while trying to press some horrific mindless piece of pablum into your hands.

    It’s important to remember that the person is trying to give you something they think is good. They’re trying to be nice to you. They’re trying to do you a favor. So, try to be nice back. It’s okay to tell them no, and firmly if you have to, but make sure to retain a calm and friendly tone. “Thank you, really, but I’m just not at all interested” is honest. “I’m sorry but I’m certain I’m not going to find time to read this” is firm while slightly evasive.

  • Take Nancy Reagan’s advice and “Just say no.”

    “No.” “No, but thank you.”

    or take the route I’m most likely to take.
    “No thank you, I prefer zombie books by modern authors.”
    “No thank you, I would rather read the new D&D DM guide.”

    Or if you are in a real good mood: “Have you read The Satanic Bible by Anton Lavey? I think I have a copy you can borrow. Maybe we can work out a trade?”

  • Revyloution

    An acquaintance once gave me a copy of “letter to a skeptic” I read the whole thing, but I filled all the margins with hard questions.

    After the two years of dialogue that started, she gave up her fundamental belief in bible literalness. She still believes in the nebulous ‘higher power’, but accepts the 13.7 billion year old universe, evolution etc. It was fun watching her grow.

    When someone offers up their faith to me, I take it as acceptance to open up a full dialogue. I just remember to start from a position of respect.

  • Talented Chimp

    I agree with Tom; simply say ‘no’. If they don’t accept that, they’re not really a friend, a christian or worthy of respect.

    Although, you should at least take a look at what the book is about. For example, a religious tract should be refused outright. A book about religion may have something interesting in it.

  • Stephen P

    Another tactic would be to tell them you’ll read their book if they will sit and listen to your criticism of it when you’re done.

    Or possibly better: tell them you’ll read their book if they will read your thoughts on it afterwards. If you put your thoughts down on paper it is likely to be a lot easier to be diplomatic in your criticism and to establish some form of communication rather than just start an argument. (It also means you have your response ready the next time someone lends you the same book).

  • In what spirit is the offer of a book given? I lend books to people who express an interest in what I’m reading and if they like them (and I get them back) I lend them related books on similar topics. I do not lend people books with an agenda in mind nor do I accept them. Nor do I lend anything to anyone who does not ask me first.

    I do occasionally read religiously themed books. I’ve just picked up a copy of Mere Christianity which is supposed to be the dog’s bollocks when it comes to apologist writing. If any of the religious people I know see me reading it then it might spark some lively debates. If someone lent me a book because they wanted to discuss theology then I’d be happy to join in.

    As for the “What did you think?” question I think it is worth taking a moment to consider what is meant by this question. At face value it means what it literally says but very few people would ask this question in the hopes of getting an alternate view of their literature choice. What people want is for their opinion to be affirmed in the views of another. If that is all they want then it is better to tell them that it wasn’t your thing and let them off rather than argue that their viewpoint is incorrect…unless you don’t like them much.

    Also The Shack is a revolting piece of puerile nonsense that no-one in their right mind should take seriously.

  • ash

    if you read anyway, why not respond with something more personal? i.e., ‘this isn’t my genre, do you like….?’, ‘i’ve never heard of this author/book, is it anything like ____? ‘coz that’s what i’m into to…’
    steers the conversation away from a tricky subject, and you might even get a closer relationship based on what you have in common, rather than what differentiates you.

  • Jen

    I would add that it is fairly basic courtesy to not question the lendee about the book you foist on them. “Oh, you simply must read this, I think you’ll love it!” is fine, but when the book is returned, smile, and don’t question them on it unless they start the conversation. Everyone has different reading styles and preferences, and not all books will appeal to all readers- there are certain authors who are great writers that I simply can’t read, regardless. Dear Prudence backs me up on this, and agrees that your friends are tacky and wrong to put you in that position.

    That said, you of course are not allowed to point that out to said tacky and wrong friends. If I were you, I would say soemthing like, “My To Be Read pile could block out the sun, and I have to tackle those for a while! Speaking of books, have you read…”

  • A direct but polite approach, like “I’m not christian” may save you problems later.

    If you want to be indirect, you could start with “I’m sorry, I don’t think this book meets my present needs.”

    or if you want to be even less direct

    “I’m sorry, I prefer to choose my own religious material”.

    Or could try something like “Oh, I’m sorry, I must have mistakenly given you the impression that you should feel free to insert your religious beliefs into my life. Should we drop religion from our interactions, or should I also feel free to pass the reading material I find valuable on to you to read?”

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