Hello, friends! I hope your weekend is off to a great start. It is St. Patrick’s Day weekend and, while I’m not Catholic, I do love good luck and a good green beer. Speaking of luck, I’m excited to present the first part of an interview that I’ve been anticipating for weeks! Richard Wade writes for a column called Ask Richard, at The Friendly Atheist. With years of experience answering personal letters from nonbelievers, Richard has gained a unique insight into real-world problems perpetuated by religion as well as potential solutions to them. In this interview, there is a lot to chew on. I have decided to present it over the next three weekends, in anticipation of a lively conversation after each segment. So, without further ado, here are the first four questions of my interview with Richard Wade:
Please tell me a bit about yourself, and how you came to work as an advice columnist.
I was a licensed Family Therapist and retired several years ago. I had been reading and commenting for a few months on the popular blog Friendly Atheist when the proprietor, Hemant Mehta invited me to write some articles about anything pertinent to atheism. I did that for a few more months when Pat Robertson gave some really awful advice to a viewer of his show who had written in, asking how she should respond to her boyfriend who is an atheist. Commenters on Friendly Atheist were talking about it, and one suggested that atheists need to have their own advice columnist. Another immediately nominated Richard Wade to be the one, and others chimed in with approval. I laughed at first because as a counselor I had been trained to avoid giving advice unless absolutely necessary, and instead to work with the clients to find solutions to their challenges that came more from them. Nevertheless, I did miss helping people, so I decided to try it.
After setting up the email for letter writers, in the first week I had a landslide of letters, so clearly there was a need. In the intervening eight and one-half years, I’ve published almost 300 replies to letters. Lately, because of increased need to take care of aging family members, I have not been able to answer the letters as frequently as I first did, but I still work on them when I can.
Have you always been an atheist? Or did some epiphany in your life lead to a rejection of religion?
My parents were never very religious and were scientifically oriented. They both worked at the Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History as exhibit designers and illustrators, and all their friends were scientists at the museum. My father described himself as an agnostic, and my mother had only vague deist ideas. She took me, as a child, to church on only two different occasions, basically because she thought maybe it was something she ought to do. I think she found it as objectionable as I found it boring, so that was the end of that.
Growing up in Southern California meant that religion was not constantly in my face, but anywhere in America it’s at least in the background all the time, so on my own I developed my own vague deist ideas. In my early twenties I was a practicing Zen Buddhist, but after about ten years I lost interest in any religious ideas and didn’t think about the subject much at all.
I never had any identifiable experience that was a turning point where I “became” an atheist, although seeing the two towers of the World Trade Center come down were the last two nails in the coffin of my thoughts that religion had anything valuable to offer civilization. A few years later I stumbled across a blog called On Faith, on the Washington Post website. It included a section on atheism, and reading it was when I first realized that the term applied to me. So it wasn’t that I decided, then and there, to become an atheist; it was that I realized I had already been one for a long time.
Many of the letters in the Ask Richard column come from nonbelievers who are treated cruelly by religious family members. How do you manage to read case after case of what amounts to emotional abuse and not project any apparent bitterness towards theists in your responses?
Most of my years as a counselor were in the field of addiction. I counseled hundreds of thousands of addicted people and their families. Seeing so many people at their worst didn’t make me cynical or disgusted, but instead deepened my compassion for anyone who is suffering and anyone who, at the effect of their suffering, are also causing suffering for others.
It’s very rare when people are truly cruel-hearted. Most often they are stuck in harmful patterns of behavior caused by serious mental and emotional disorders, or by experiences of abuse in their own upbringing, or, as often is the case in the Ask Richard letters, by negative and rigid religious training and prejudicial attitudes toward atheists.
Nevertheless, some of the letters make me cry or grit my teeth in fury. But I have a choice. I can express myself, or I can try to somehow make the situation better. Very often that’s an either-or choice. If I choose to express my emotional reaction, my outrage or frustration at the injustice or harmful foolishness that I’m reading about, I will only be feeding more anger and hurt into the situation and causing people to be more willing to spread that anger and hurt to others. That’s not going to make the situation better.
So I have to take a couple of deep breaths, calm myself, and try to find a way for the letter writer to respond rather than react to the difficult people in their lives, and to somehow keep their own integrity intact without doing it in a hurtful way. I keep in mind that everybody is hurting, not just the letter writer. I often urge the atheist letter writers that even if their religious family members slam the door closed on the relationship, just don’t lock that door on their side. Make it clear to the religious persons that if they get over their fear and loathing, opening the door to renewing a loving and mutually respectful relationship is possible.
The situations are never easy and clear-cut. If they were, people wouldn’t need to write for advice. Most of the time it’s a dilemma, a set of choices that are going to involve pain one way or the other. To find the least destructive, even if still painful solution, and to work for the long-term improvement over the quick fix is the challenge in all the letters.
Are you ever challenged directly by believers in your personal or professional life? If so, do you have a response that works well to keep tempers at bay?
I actually put myself in that position as often as I can, but not for the reason that people might first assume. I got tired of trying to repair the ruined relationships caused by fear and hatred of atheists described in the letters. I wanted to get ahead of it and prevent the strife and heartbreak in families before it happened. So I started getting myself invited to speak at churches as a “guest atheist.” The first thing I say to the congregation is that I’m not there to try to change their beliefs about God. I’m only hoping to change beliefs they probably have about atheists. Those beliefs, those myths, misconceptions, and outright lies about atheists cause serious harm to good, decent people. And because atheism is rapidly growing in society, it’s increasingly likely that the people who are harmed will include someone they love. I’m there to offer accurate information about atheists and atheism so that the widespread, scary misconceptions won’t destroy loving relationships and fracture families.
Their anger is rooted in fear or hurt. If I react to their anger, I’ll only provoke more. If I respond to their fear or hurt, I can reassure and relax them. Yet I’m always respectful and never condescending. I listen intently to their questions or assumptions, even if I’ve heard them hundreds of times, and I genuinely ponder their words for a few moments before replying. They sense that I’m really taking them seriously and that I’m not just looking for an opportunity to insult, belittle, or dismiss them. I’m never hoping to “win” an argument or “score” a point; I’m always going for accurate mutual understanding from a place of respect for them as persons, even though I disagree with their beliefs. Wherever I’ve done this, the congregations and their clergy have responded with warmth and gratitude.
I hope you enjoyed the first segment of the interview. Hopefully we can raise a virtual glass this weekend (in honor of Stephen Hawking, perhaps, in lieu of St. Patrick?) and have a marvelous conversation in my virtual living room. I can’t wait to share the second part of the interview next weekend!
PS: While the Ask Richard column is sometimes backlogged, he has generously offered to feature some letters from my readers, as a special favor to Love over Religion. If you would like your question published in The Friendly Atheist, this would be a great month to send it in!