Ask Richard: A Tale From China that Could Have Been From Anywhere August 30, 2010

Ask Richard: A Tale From China that Could Have Been From Anywhere

Note: Letter writers’ names are changed to protect their privacy.

Dear Richard:

I am an atheist Chinese teenager living in an international community in Beijing, China. I used to be a Christian until one day I realized that Christianity is just not working, and I came out easily, since China is an atheist country after all.

But the problem is, one of my best friends is a fundamentalist Christian. Things were okay between us until one day I asked her out for a date and she rejected me because I am an atheist, and then, we started having all these debates on the existence of God, and how we are suppose to treat life; and now, I am really getting sick of her arguments, because every time we argue, she just avoids using her reasoning skills and uses God as the ultimate answer, and look down at me. I don’t want to lose her as a friend, what should I do?

Thanks for your help.

Dear Mitchell,

When you asked your friend out for a date, you introduced new expectations and prospects for the relationship. A dating relationship carries with it possibilities for romantic and sexual involvement, and possible long-term commitments. If she had accepted your date, from her point of view the stakes would have been much higher. Many religious people are comfortable being friends with atheists, but they would not consider any involvement that could go in the direction of choosing them as a mate.

I have the impression that you were disappointed, and that caused you to feel resentment. Now this on-going debate about religion is being fed by the conflict in your relationship. Outwardly you’re both discussing religious things, but beneath the surface what you’re both really struggling about are your value as persons and your hurt feelings. You are trying to defend your suitability as a datable young man, and she is trying to defend the validity of her reasons why she turned you down.

I’m assuming you’re a rationalist. Take a step back and look at it rationally. By declining your offer of a date, she probably wasn’t saying that you are unsuitable for dating anyone. She was only saying that she didn’t want to go in that direction with you because your different views would cause more conflict as you became more committed. With very few exceptions, she’s right. I think she wasn’t rejecting you, she was rejecting the very likely heartaches and headaches that both of you would suffer. Imagine if you were married and having this perpetual quarrel…

This doesn’t sound like a debate that either of you will “win.” Neither of you will probably change your different methods of thinking in the foreseeable future. If you really don’t want to lose her as a friend, then stop trying to win the debate. Talk with her frankly about your friendship, bring your expectations back to a friendship level only, and forget the whole idea of dating her. Then, if the two of you still really want to discuss religious issues, at least the emotional tension about both of your value, attractiveness and self esteem will not be mixed up in it.

Consider her predicament. She’s a fundamentalist Christian in a country of 1.3 billion atheists, at least officially. She’s going to be at least a little bit defensive and intractable about her beliefs. If you understand her feelings from her point of view, your empathy will help to restore the mutual respect and goodwill of the original friendship.

Mitchell, I suggest that you look around for other prospects for dating. As you said, you’re in a country of atheists. Hopefully, you’ll be able to enjoy both a friendship with your friend and dates with someone else.


You may send your questions for Richard to AskRichard. Please keep your letters concise. They may be edited. There is a very large number of letters. I am sorry if I am unable to respond in a timely manner.

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  • By declining your offer of a date, she probably wasn’t saying that you are unsuitable for dating anyone. She was only saying that she didn’t want to go in that direction with you…Imagine if you were married and having this perpetual quarrel…

    I was. I did.
    Good advice (as always) Richard.

  • I’m in a situation a little bit like you describe, Richard – I’m secular humanist, she’s Baptist, we’re dating long-distance – so I thought it might be worth throwing our solution out there: start a blog.

    We got tired of having the argument so we focused on what strikes us both the same way – the blog lets us point out how closely aligned people’s moral compasses can be while on either side of the faith/non-faith divide.

    Obviously different people will have different ways to find out what they’ve got in common, but we chose co-writing and it’s taken the edge off for us; we argue a lot less now. Might be worth considering, for anyone else who’s dating someone on the other side of the debate.

  • Claudia

    Talk with her frankly about your friendship, bring your expectations back to a friendship level only, and forget the whole idea of dating her.

    This might be good advice, but if you’re really in love (crush on steroids teen-angst kind of love) then I’d suggest some time apart. You don’t have to be mean about it, but if you still have feelings for her that are making you miserable, then you need to tell her you need some time to get your head into a “friend” space and spend some time the hell away from her. Not because she’s a fundamentalist Christian, but because you may need some space to move on so that being around her isn’t so fraught with heartache.

  • Reginald Selkirk

    I don’t want to lose her as a friend, what should I do?

    Lose her as a friend. You don’t want to be her friend, you want to have sex with her.

  • Its sound like to me that you are a pretty normal teenager. You may just have to agree to disagree on the subject of religion and move on. Perhaps you can both remain friends if you agree to keep it platonic and avoid the subject of religion. You will probably be much happier, though, if you look elsewhere for a (romantic) girlfriend. I wish you better luck with the next girl.

  • Ron in Houston

    You know how they warn Christians not to marry non-believers because they’ll be “unequally yoked?”

    We need to come up with an atheist equivalent. What jumps to my mind is “irrationally yoked,” but maybe someone else can come up with a better one.

    Anyway Mitchell, in this guys mind you’re setting yourself up for a lot of grief if you’re “irrationally yoked.”

    Perhaps you should be counting your blessings.

  • SickoftheUS

    I wish I had this kid’s dating problems growing up. Woody Allen had a quip along the lines of “being bisexual immediately doubles your chances of a date on Saturday night”. Then being an atheist in China immediately improves your chances of a date by a factor of about 30, over being an awkward atheist in the US…

  • Courtney

    Maybe the two of you can avoid “debates” on religion.
    A good friend of mine started off as enemies. I loathed this girl.

    Now we’re pretty good friends. She knows my views on religion and a host of other issues and I know her views as well. I tease her sometimes and it’s all good.

    If she cannot keep arguing with you about religion, feel free to let them friendship go. Are you really losing out on a “friendship” if all you do is argue about religion?

    I love debating people and debating with my friends but we all know when to drop that and move on to something else.

  • MhicLeoid

    Hi Mitchell,

    I don’t know if I have much to add to what’s already been said but I can empathize with your situation. I’m an atheist and a former Christian and a few years ago I started dating a fundamentalist Christian girl.

    She turned me down at first because of religion but then decided we could at least try dating. I was willing to compromise on religion but for her we couldn’t marry if I wasn’t Christian because it was against the bible. So she was dating me with the hope that I would convert because otherwise she couldn’t be with me.

    It was a good relationship while it lasted and we were very much in love. However, she reluctantly broke up with me after telling her family about me. It was a difficult breakup and we still saw each other a lot afterwards and most people we didn’t directly tell thought we were still going out.

    We worked on trying to change our love for each other from the romantic kind to something more appropriate for friendship, and though it took a while that’s what we were eventually able to do. The two of us are very close now and it’s no exaggeration to say I think of her like family.

    She just got married recently and I couldn’t be happier for her. Watching her get married I knew that she had made the right decision years ago in breaking off our relationship because we each deserved someone who could accept us. As willing as I was to compromise I could never really be a part of that community which was such a big part of her life, and she never would have been able to accept my non-belief without it being a constant fight about kids, tithing, etc.

    I don’t know what you feel for this girl or what she feels for you, but even if you love each other it doesn’t necessarily mean you can be together as boyfriend and girlfriend. That doesn’t mean you can’t be together at all, though. You can still be good, supportive, and close friends to each other.

    It’s cliche, but there are always more fish in the sea. Even if you feel like she’s your one shot at love (which I definitely felt like at the time and for a while afterwards) you know at some level that that’s not true.

    I know dating for guys in China can be difficult but it’s not impossible. You already have good English skills and live in an international community, so one thing you might want to consider is dating a foreign girl (if you weren’t trying that already). A lot of foreign girls in China find that the foreign guys ignore them because they want Chinese girls, and a lot of the Chinese guys are too shy to go out with them. So, it’s just a thought 🙂

    Oh, and one thing I thought when re-reading your letter: don’t try to convert her, and make it clear you don’t want her to try to convert you. You can have discussions about religion and what you each believe and why, but if you go into these discussions thinking, “I need to convert her so she’ll go out with me” then it will be hard to maintain or have a friendship.

    Sorry for the comment that’s longer than Richard’s response but I’ve been in a situation like yours before and in case it helps you I wanted to share my experience here. Good luck, and I hope you and this girl can be good friends and each find someone more matched to yourself 🙂

  • Edmond

    It’s so sad that, even between “friends”, there’s a subject matter so taboo that it’s best to just avoid it for fear of destroying the friendship. Among our closest friends we can discuss sex, bodily functions, politics, economics, the horrors of aging, the misdeeds of youth… any number of “touchy” subjects and yet follow them up with a laugh and a beer. But when it comes to religion, it’s too much of a sore spot for even a best friend to broach.

    And the reason for this is that people don’t like to have their beliefs challenged. But you shouldn’t even HOLD beliefs unless they HAVE been challenged, and stood up to the challenge! Why such protection of beliefs that are not founded on reason, or cannot stand up to the scrutiny of logic? If your beliefs cannot be defended any better than “I just KNOW”, then perhaps you should be ASHAMED at holding such poorly supported beliefs. THIS would be a good reason to avoid discussing them.

    Even in politics, religion’s closest neighbor in the taboo-spectrum, the argument is over how the country should be ran, and most people can provide at least SOME evidence to support their position. No one is arguing over whether the president even EXISTS.

    If our most cherished beliefs are based on good, sound reasoning, and can stand up against criticism, then we should be PROUD and EAGER to discuss them. We shouldn’t “hush” them away like talking about a terminal disease at the dinner table.

  • Courtney

    I hear you Edmond.

  • muggle

    Edmond, tell me about it.

    I’d add to Richard’s advise that perhaps this is the point to smile and say truce. Agree to disagree, tell her hey it wasn’t meant to be but let’s still be friends, okay? If you can be, she’ll sigh a breath of relief, smile and say yes in some form. If not, she’ll argue but then you’ll know to start distancing yourself for sanity’s sake.

    In either case, move on. Either as friends with her or not. If you can’t be friends without harboring false hopes of more, also distance yourself. If it had any chance in hell of happening, her reaction wouldn’t have been this one. She likes you but she doesn’t love you in the romantic sense.

  • fritzy

    I agree with Richard entirely. I know it hurts right now, but she’s doing you a favor. Relationships like this rarely work and you’ll go blue in the face holding your breath that she is going to give up her mythology. I have to give her kuddos for realizing her boundaries and sticking to them.

    If you want to be her friend, be her friend; Start by ending your attempt to change her. Then stop hoping for anything beyond friendship. Then find yourself a nice atheist girl–there are pleanty of them out there and it’s much easier to find them than it used to be:)

    Good luck!

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