Benefits of Atheist-Catholic Relationships

Celebrating relationships between Catholic and atheist friends by toasting a beer.

Scott and I were hanging at an Oktoberfest tent party at the local German bar, doing what you do at such things. We came across Marie, a woman I had met through my little sister. I introduced her to Scott and they hit it off, so I decided to catch up with some other friends and let them continue to talk.

Not much later, Scott came up to me and said, “Hey, feel free to let me know when the girl I’m talking with is super Catholic.” He said it with a big goofy smile on his face, but I could tell he was half-serious.

“Should I give you some sort of a signal?” I asked, mostly rhetorically. We had a laugh and moved on.

Scott isn’t super Catholic. In fact, he’s a self-proclaimed atheist — or at least an agnostic, if you press him on it. And, he’s come to realize that he and super Catholic girls probably don’t make the best match, romantically speaking. That’s not to say, however, that he and I, a committed Catholic, don’t make a great match friendship-wise.

In fact, despite differing greatly in our spiritual and religious beliefs, I consider Scott to be one of my best friends.

Our unlikely friendship has made me think that more Christians and atheists should find each other — for their own good and for the greater good.

People change. Friendships don’t have to.

Scott and I met while we both attended the public high school in town. We hit it off because we had similar personalities and interests, namely Christian rock music and Nintendo. If they had given out such an award, he would likely have won “Most Christian Dude on Campus.” I admired him for the fact that he was plenty popular (and normal enough) — while also being very proudly Christian and unapologetic about it.

Fast-forward a couple years, and Scott had completely denounced his faith by the end of college. Now, if he’s really honest, he might describe Christianity, Catholicism included, as silly and counterproductive at best — to harmful and dangerous at worst.

At first, it was quite a shock. We had a couple of conversations about it, especially regarding some choices he was making at the time. But for the most part, we continued on as friends in spite of this change.

It has never occurred to me that Scott and I would stop being friends.

We weren’t going to church events together anymore, and we weren’t able to share spiritual conversations from similar Christian perspectives, but we still had plenty in common and enjoyed each other’s company as much as ever. Scott has changed, to be sure, but so what? We are friends.

The best friends are friends who stretch you.

Meanwhile, I have plenty of other friends, Catholic and otherwise, whom I don’t enjoy spending time with as much as I do with Scott, for whatever reason. Perhaps the appeal is that he’s inquisitive and has a lot of energy to learn new things — and talk about them. I see our friendship as a rare gift.

Scott and I come from different perspectives now, but our conversations are no less interesting. In fact, those differing perspectives have in some ways made our discussions more lively and thought provoking.

If I say something flippantly or make a flimsy argument, he’s not going to just nod along because he assumes he knows what I’m thinking. He’ll challenge me on it, and that makes me have to defend my perspective with nuance and precision.

Since we are both seeking the truth, we have all sorts of things to talk about, even if we might disagree on the conclusion.

What led Scott to leave his Christian faith is his refusal to be satisfied with the status quo, not being content with simply going along with the way things are and with what’s comfortable. Certainly, it hurt to see him give up on Christianity, and I’d prefer he hadn’t. But thanks to his inquisitive mind and penchant for thoughtful inquiry, we still have plenty to talk about.

And I have to trust that it might just be that intentional search for truth that will eventually lead him back to God, who is Truth Himself. In the meantime, I’ve found it to be a bit remarkable how sympatico a relationship can be even if the friends involved differ greatly in their perspectives. Perhaps, that means God is working in the relationship in a particular way with a particular purpose in mind. Or, perhaps, that’s what He intended for friendship all along, regardless of what obvious, falling-off-a-horse conversions result.

Why I give doubters the benefit of the doubt.

So, how do we continue to be close friends? Do I pretend that he’s not an atheist and he that I’m not way too spiritual? Are we constantly fighting with each other and trying to disprove the contrary viewpoint? Hardly.

It starts with the fact that we actually like each other. There’s something about liking someone, as well as having the same sense of humor, that helps you discuss complex topics. I’m quicker to give the benefit of the doubt, slower to get angry, and we give each other space to opine knowing we’re not going to get judged or reprimanded.

This doesn’t mean that I consider him beyond reproach simply because he’s a non-believer. I just don’t use passive aggression to try to convert him nor do I feel the need to set the record straight on all topics, every time.

Know your role.

I have become convinced that the best way to evangelize Scott at this point in our relationship is to simply model the Christian life as best I can. I hope Scott can see how my life is different because I’m Catholic, which may even lead him to believe that I’m better off for keeping the faith.

I’m not better than him, by any means. But I am convinced — and the Catholic faith proudly proclaims — that we were made for God. St. Augustine wrote, “our hearts are restless until they rest in You, Lord.”

If there’s ever an opportunity to verbalize that to him, I’ll take it. But I don’t put undue pressure on myself to try to bring him back to Jesus all by myself.

My job is to be a conduit of the Holy Spirit — and I can’t be that for Scott if I’m not friends with him. In my experience, real evangelization looks much more like friendship than standing on a soap box.

Isn’t that’s how Jesus himself did it? He befriended people, from random women at the well or dudes climbing trees, to fishermen, tax collectors, and prostitutes. Similarly, I shouldn’t limit my friends to those who share my every belief, worldview, or personal preference.

Having friends who can support you in your faith is important and indispensable. They work to bring you closer to God, too. But that doesn’t mean you must exclude all others.

So when I meet somebody who doesn’t share my Catholic faith, I try to think about what I have to offer her, or how I can help him.

It might just be friendship — but that’s no small thing.

Grotto quote that reads, "Real evangelization looks much more like friendship than standing on a soap box."

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