Ask Richard: Her Catholic Boyfriend is Uncomfortable Discussing Her Atheism July 9, 2009

Ask Richard: Her Catholic Boyfriend is Uncomfortable Discussing Her Atheism

Dear Richard,

Okay, I had to take the bait when I read your blog post. I am an atheist, and my boyfriend (who I live with) is Catholic. Normally, it is not an issue. He is not a devout Catholic, he never wants to go to mass, he doesn’t pray, he even told me he’s really not sure there is a god. However, he gets really offended if I say anything bad about Catholicism or religion and thinks I don’t need to be so outspoken about my atheism. I’m not really sure what to do as I see myself more as raising interesting and thought-provoking points and he sees it as an attack. I love my boyfriend very much and I don’t need him to be an atheist, but why is he so defensive about something he doesn’t even act like matters to him?


Dear Nora,

Your statement and question are crystal clear. If you haven’t yet, present them to him instead of me, but be certain to present it all in a way that helps him feel completely safe to answer honestly. So much of communication is in the tone. His answer might require some introspective effort on his part, so it might take some time, and might come in small installments. Be equal parts patient, loving and curious. Approach his puzzling defensiveness as if it is an interesting quirk in a personality that you love, so you won’t inadvertently create the sense that you see it as a flaw. Then he might become curious about it too, rather than becoming even more defensive about his defensiveness.

Beyond whatever he might say I can only speculate, and offhand I can think of five possibilities:

  1. His family background might not have included the understanding that “interesting and thought-provoking” conversations can be non-adversarial, that they aren’t necessarily one person attacking another. Not all families know how to have such conversations. If this is the case, he might react as if it is an attack.
  2. Even though he may even be not so sure about God, being Catholic for him may include some self identity, family identity and loyalty, cultural identity, sense of place and sense of tradition. If so, those things might trigger a defensive reaction.
  3. Another possibility is that it might not be defensiveness about his own beliefs, but instead it might be a less–than-conscious objection to your atheism. He has been brought up in a society that sees atheism as ugly, evil, vulgar, disrespectful and dangerous. His loving you as an individual may not have completely erased such negative feelings about a category of which you are a member.
  4. There is the possibility that because of that stigma, he wants to avoid social embarrassment if your atheism is revealed to others, so he wishes you’d just not talk about it.
  5. Your arguments are strong and compelling, and he feels what little faith he has left giving way. For emotional reasons, he doesn’t want to completely lose it. Many atheists know how painful that process can be. So he wants you to back off.

Speculations like these are more often wrong than right when I haven’t gotten to know the person, so the best expert to consult about him is him. If you think any of the above possibilities might be correct, be careful to only propose them if he seems stuck and cannot find the insight he needs to answer your original question. Again, the tone is important; present them as mere suggestions, not accusations.

Nora, he’s a lucky guy to have so loving and intelligent a girlfriend. Intelligence sometimes makes the loving more complicated, but also can make it more satisfying.


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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Great reply, Richard.

    One thing I’ve learned from my past relationships is that there should never be “forbidden subjects”. Even if it seems acceptable at first (s/he freaks out when I talk about this, but I really don’t need to talk about it, so let’s just avoid it), it always turns into a festering wound, and always ends badly.

    For instance, the boyfriend seems to have a tribal mentality (“us versus them”) about his religion, which should indeed be a subject for discussion, instead of a forbidden one.

  • Evinfuilt


    My partner was Catholic when we got together. I decided to experience the whole thing along with her. I actually think me humoring her, and seeing what was involved and everything is what ended up making her realize being a Cafeteria Catholic wasn’t worth the pain they inflict on her. Now she answers the question on belief with Ye Flying Spaghetti Monster.

    I guess I’m saying, take your time, do your best to make him question his beliefs even more, to see if its worth defending.

    This also helped both of us, with her parts of family that are still religious, I can walk the walk during the rosary now, which makes people around us more comfortable with us and our lifestyle.

  • Mike

    I read this question and response with quite a bit of interest as I am an atheist and always have been. But I was raised in a large Catholic family and I sometimes get offended when my wife criticizes Catholicism. I sometimes have to stop myself from getting angry and ask myself why it bothers me so much. I’ve never come up with a satisfying answer other than that she believes some crazy things and I don’t think she has room to criticize other religions. But this can’t be the whole reason since I don’t get upset when she sometimes talks about other religions.

    I just think the cultural influence of religion can be very strong regardless of whether you buy into the underlying beliefs.

  • Mike: as I said, it’s probably tribalism. It’s a big part of religion (but not only religion), that “us versus them” mentality.

    Reminds me of the “yes, but are you a Catholic atheist or a Protestant atheist?” Irish joke Dawkins mentions in TGD.

  • Brian E

    My vote was for number 2 even before reading Mike’s response. Catholicism, like Judaism, is becoming more and more of a cultural identification than a religion. And this is good; no sense attacking the culture if the religion/ritualistic aspects aren’t an issue.

  • Someone I know was also like this–very defensive, despite the fact that I hardly ever brought up the subject with him. I’d say his reason was primarily #3. He had an atheist roommate at one point, whom he said was bigoted–also really messy. I think he stopped getting defensive because he eventually realized that I’m nothing like his former roommate. I don’t bash religion, I do a cost-benefit analysis, so to speak. (It also helps that I very rarely bring up the topic at all.)

    But there’s also an element of #2. Even among inactive or lapsed Catholics, you’d be surprised how important the Catholic identity can be. They may not think too highly of church services, or of the pope, or of their Catholic education (if they got one), but those experiences are theirs. They grew up with it. Their parents grew up with it.

    Listen, when I first started reading stuff that criticizes religion, I felt ashamed. Even though I had the most open-minded Catholic parents, who never even talked about hell, I still instinctively knew I was doing something I wasn’t supposed to. Complaining about the silly things that Catholicism puts us through is one thing (my friends complained about it too), but seriously considering an outside perspective was out of bounds, and I knew it. This fear set me back a year or more.

  • Sebeka

    Great answer, especially #2.

    I wonder also if the boyfriend might feel pressure that he has to represent all Catholics in these discussions? He knows there are historical, biblical, or traditional explanations for Catholic views but as a lapsed Catholic, he might not remember them or perhaps never cared enough to find out before now. Add to all that to the possibility that he might not totally agree with the stance that he’s being asked to explain, and it’s a recipe for irritability.

    Perhaps Nora could look up the Catholic Encyclopedia online or some Catholic Apologist blogs for background info before starting a religious discussion with her boyfriend? If she starts with that, the boyfriend might relax a bit and believe her when she says she’s interested in his own views, how he, personally, finds modern relevance in old traditions.

  • It might help when discussing religion to always discuss it in the abstract, not how it is practiced by Catholics. That might diffuse the “tribal” tension. Or you could talk about evangelicals and Baptists and steer clear of details unique to Catholicism.

    If your significant other is a Baptist, try the reverse. Talk about Catholics.

    Tribalism is a very powerful human motivator.

    As an example, enlisted military personnel can trash talk the armed forces to each other but if a non-military person criticizes the armed forces, then the military person will often get very defensive. Only those that “did the time” have the right to criticize.

  • David D.G.

    Richard, every answer I’ve read so far in your “Ask Richard” series, including this one, has been incredibly insightful, supportive, gentle, and just plain brilliant. Seriously, this is consistently the best advice-column content I have ever seen. Ann Landers and Dear Abby had better watch their backs!

    ~David D.G.

  • anonymous

    Wow! Another excellent response from Richard! (I second the motion that you should be recruited by a magazine like Skeptical Inquirer.) 😉

    Based on the information provided by Nora, it sounds as though her boyfriend is not all that knowledgeable in his own religion. He seems to be a passive “just-in-case” ticket holder, as countless Christians are.

    A subject that one knows little about is usually not the subject that he/she wants to discuss. It is natural for them to get defensive when their knowledge (or lack thereof) is challenged, especially when the challenger appears to be more confident about their perspective on the issue.

    It will be hard for him to abandon the religion unless he’s willing to delve into it, understand what it’s all about, and then challenge the illogic himself. Pressuring him to discuss it will only make him more defensive.

    Just love him and accept him wherever he is in the process. It sounds like his religious faith is not an issue in the relationship, so why make it so?

    And if he hangs onto his ticket, perhaps you can go as his date to the judgment ball! Just kidding!

  • Earl Newton

    I think it’s also fair to mention that the atheist point of view, while definitely thought-provoking, is certainly more along the lines of an argument counter to religion. As in, “this is why this aspect of Catholicism doesn’t make sense/doesn’t apply/is outdated/is illogical.”

    I doubt her boyfriend would be as defensive if she were quoting religious scholars on theology. And indeed, she being more intimately involved in his life, a counter-argument to his faith may come as an attack, whereas it wouldn’t have from a stranger. Something along the lines of, “You know I believe this way, why are you engaging me in debate?”

    Point: I don’t think it’s unnatural to be defensive when someone is posing an argument counter to your beliefs, any more than an atheist is being overly defensive when someone suggests they should “get religion.”

  • I would guess that the boyfriend is defensive because he has an emotional attachment to his religion – a sort of tribal loyalty – even if the belief is vague. So if someone questions or attacks his religion he feels it personally.

    It’s a bit like a brother-in-law. – your wife may not think much of her own brother but if you slag him off she feels hurt!

  • Nora

    Thanks so much for the response, Richard and everyone else. Like I said, it’s not normally an issue, I just want to know how to work around it when it comes up. I guess I never took into account just how much non-religious identity there can be with Catholicism. Possibly because my own mother was raised very Catholic and then switched to protestantism and has never seemed to have an issue with it. I’ve had a limited exposure to Catholicism, and while I see it as “religion,” that may not be all there is to it. It’s tough to bring the subject up (I feel like he might see me bringing it up as an attempt to “convert” him), but I think I’ll do better if it does come up from here on out. Thanks again!!

    As an example, enlisted military personnel can trash talk the armed forces to each other but if a non-military person criticizes the armed forces, then the military person will often get very defensive. Only those that “did the time” have the right to criticize.

    PS, this is so true! I’m in the military and I bitch about it all the time, but I’d be sooo pissed if someone else did it…puts a little perspective in there!


  • mb

    My late wife was Episcopalian — I was, when we were first married, an agnostic but raised as an Evangelical. She thought the absolutist nature of much of Evangelical dogma was absurd and often said so. Even though I was well along the path to atheism, I took umbrage when she attacked the faith of my family. I took it as a personal affront — she was, in effect, insulting my father whom I held in high esteem — even though I disagreed with his dogma.

    As I progressed in my journey to full-fledged atheism, she remained in her faith — though hardly a “practicing” member of her church. Looking back I see that our discussions of religion/god diminished as I became more sure of my position that it was all nonsense. I think that was partly because she may have found my position insulting to her — in effect, I was saying that she believed in nonsense. I was not pushy regarding atheism but I often found it difficult to hold my tongue when religious issues came up.

    During the final days of her life (she died as a result of lung cancer — ironically, though she smoked 3 packs a day for 30-odd years, it was the only type of lung cancer NOT associated with smoking,) she became more religious, as may be expected. I attended one “healing” mass with her but she knew my heart wasn’t in it. I confess that one of my regrets is that I didn’t, or couldn’t, play along — if for no other reason than to give her comfort. I loved her very much and I often castigate myself for allowing my philosophy to interfere with helping to ease her mind about her imminent death.

    It is very easy to take offense in the area of religion/god. We, as atheists, are essentially calling theists “idiots” or “fools.” So if you want a relationship with a theist — however tenuous their belief — you must tread lightly. There is a little tit-for-tat, however, as the Bible clearly states that one that denies god is a fool. Turnabout seems like fair play — but it doesn’t do much to nurture a relationship.

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