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I grew up in a pretty religious (evangelical) family. Naturally, I believed what I was taught: the actual religious stuff like love your neighbors and enemies, be humble and kind, and so on. But also that evolution is a hoax, sex before marriage is the worst thing imaginable other than being gay, scripture should be taken literally, etc. Although I never was a bigot, I was ostracized and bullied at school, so I never had many friends. I did make some friends at church. But my experiences with other people have usually been not so great, so I usually have a hard time connecting with people.

Being pretty curious (and having plenty of time), I have now spent a few years reading extensively about the foundations and history of my faith, the group dynamics involved, what kind of ethical views are possible, etc. I would still call myself a believer, but my newfound views are regarded by my church friends as "liberal" and "secular", and I am basically being told I am an apostate.

I do try and tailor my reactions to people depending on which group they're in, but by now my church friends have started avoiding me altogether because I don't share their beliefs enough while my (few) non-believing friends always seem to keep me at a distance because for them my beliefs are too much (they still think I am a lunatic fundamentalist although I never really was).

An example interaction with a church friend could go like this: we meet to talk about life is going. As for these people (and me) "meaningful" discussions are very important, invariably, some religious topic comes up, like "kids shouldn't be baptized". I tried to gently state my point of view ("kids may be baptized"), but my friend is clearly uncomfortable with this, saying that if "one" goes down this road it leads to "liberal theology" (code word for apostasy).

Regarding non-church friends: an example is that a very close friend basically stopped telling me about his relationships (a big topic in his life, and thus something I as his friend would like to be supportive about) because they frequently change. I have never said anything critical about this in general, although I have sometimes asked him what his long-term life goals are regarding relationships. And, since the two are in conflict, how his goals relate to his current endeavors. But he will in the discussion frequently "jokingly" bring up things which makes it clear he assumes I think his behavior is bad in general. Maybe I should somehow make it clear that I don't think like the caricature fundamentalist in his head, but I would find it pretty awkward to address this directly.

How can I retain my relationships with both groups of people, and have people to discuss topics like this with?

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    You say your non-church friends still think you're beliefs are over the top. What exactly do they mean? Or are they just not aware that your views have changed? And do you want to remain friends with both groups of people (i.e. even your from the sound of it intolerant church friends?). This is not completely clear to me. – Peter Feb 14 at 13:32
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    Hey user! Right now your question is very broad, it's asking two questions at once. I've edited it to focus only on the first question, since the second (how to find like-minded people) is more of a matter of 'product/place recommendations' than actual interpersonal skills (behaviors you use while interacting with other people). For the question that's left, it would probably help if you could include something about how much you're wanting to give up/in just to keep these relationships, and narrow that down to one group (the church friends or the non-believing friends). – Tinkeringbell Feb 14 at 13:39
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    Also, have you tried or considered trying anything specific yet to keep/improve these relationships, and what was the outcome of those attempts (or what do you think the result would've been that it wouldn't align with your goals)? – Tinkeringbell Feb 14 at 13:39
  • @Peter I don't discuss faith stuff with people when they clearly don't care about it, but it still comes up indirectly. Like when people discuss stealing minor things from their workplace I will be the only one to say I never do it (without making a big deal out of it, but my friends obviously know where my ethics come from). Other examples include of drug usage, sex, gossip, etc. Having and stating principles seems to make others think I'm still a fundamentalist, even if done in a non-confrontational way. – user32413 Feb 14 at 13:57
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    @user32413: There are plenty of non religious people who object to stealing, don't use drugs etc. So it seems your friends single you out just because you used to be a fundamentalist. Have you tried to call them out on this? – Peter Feb 14 at 14:00

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You are not the first person to have this issue and I suspect won't be the last.

I have friends who are atheist and friends who are more religious than I. I have friends who are politically very liberal and friends who are quite conservative. Quite simply, I find that no one has the exact same views that I do.

A large part of relationships for us as Christians is seeing the value in others, made in the image of God, and the things that unite us rather than the things that divide us. For instance, I have made no secret of my faith with my non-religious friends. At the same time, I know that proselytizing to them will only drive them away - denying me the chance to minister to them. Yet we have many things in common - work, desire to see the good in others, struggles with relationships, and caring for one another.

I've written multiple answers here about dealing with zealots and I suspect that you are dealing with them as well. I'm not going to go repeating that content here but will amend this if you want more. I've got friends who are definitely more certain in their theological beliefs than I am - I've come to believe that there are things where "I don't know" is an acceptable answer to a religious question, and some of my friends are quite certain that they do know. And I've got friends who have no time for religion and refer to God as "the invisible friend" or "the great sky-king".

In response to OP's question: there's no negotiating with a zealot. It doesn't matter what they are zealous about, whether religion, politics, or if pineapple goes on pizza. Zealotry is marked by an unwillingness to entertain other views - so don't frustrate yourself by wading into that snake pit. When confronted by zealots, I as a rule make it known that I don't share that viewpoint and have no desire to discuss that. Either we can continue to discuss other things, or the conversation comes to a close.

With respect to your specific example: I've had to clear misconceptions with my friends. One answer I've given when friends have said "you're probably going to judge me for this" is to respond with "I've long since given up being general manager of the universe. I want to hear what you have to say." Another is to repeat something a pastor once told me: "When, in a relationship, you never disagree, one of you is probably not necessary." Yeah, friends disagree - but they still see the inherent value in one another and in their relationship.

So, there's a lot of background here. Now it's time to answer the question. First of all, find the areas where you agree. Show your friends the value you place on them. Accept that you disagree on things but respect their opinion. Where assumptions aren't accurate, gently correct them - think of Romans 14:19 (Do whatever leads to peace and mutual edification). Recall the greatest commandment - it's not to correct one another but to love one another.

I'd also add this: people change. Relationships change. Beliefs change. You will find that some relationships aren't worth the one-sided effort you put into maintaining them. That doesn't make anyone a bad person; it accepts knowing that one-sided relationships can't last. If a friend sees you as a good person, worthy of being in a relationship with you, then they can accept and celebrate your value. And if they can't, then I'd submit that they really aren't much of a friend anyway.

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    Thank you. Regarding zealots: maybe you could link some of your other answers? I tried looking at your answer list, but you have written so many ;) – user32413 Feb 14 at 20:23
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    @user32413 I could, but then I'd need to look through them... :) So I'll summarize. There's no negotiation with a zealot- they are right and will die on that particular hill. Whether religious, political, or geographical zealots, they aren't really interested in anything other than their point of view on that subject, so trying to either debate with them or change their mind will only result in frustration for you. I've done this often enough that I've come to the belief that it's best to avoid discussion of their issue altogether. "Thanks for the input; let's talk about something else" – baldPrussian Feb 14 at 21:09
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    Ha! Visited Mum & Dad the other night for dinner. As I was leaving, Mum mentioned something she'd read or been told at some point. "When a husband and wife never argue, you can be reasonably sure one of the brains isn't working". – enhzflep Feb 15 at 2:25
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    I particularly like the use of the phrase "zealot" because while harsh, it absolutely captures the type of person being talked about by the asker. If you aren't secure enough in your belief that you can accept being challenged on it, you aren't a true believer, period. (This goes for the absence of belief as well!) I'm an atheist, but have studied the Bible at length, and I believe that if there is a God, they would look rather narrowly on those whose belief is as shallow as a zealot's. – Ian Kemp Feb 16 at 11:52
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    Good answer! I would point out though, Romans 14:19 isn't much help when people can't agree on what issues are acceptable to disagree about. (And there certainly are issues Christians mustn't disagree about. Citation: read the rest of Paul's writings). – Dark Malthorp Feb 18 at 12:22
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I'm in your position too. It's not an easy one, to be caught between two extremes who think you're fraternizing with the enemy, and to question which one you belong to — if any.

As a Christian whose views are considered left of much of the base, here are a few observations I've made:

Both groups have a few people who think like you

That is, there are a few Christians who are as liable to question their own faith as yourself, and there are a few non-Christians who have as much respect for traditional faith as yourself. Both of these might seem pretty unlikely, and they're few and far between, proportionally speaking. But simply broaden your definition and you'll find that the overlapping portion of the Venn diagram where you currently live is not quite empty.

These people are doing hard work to live in the paradox as well, and they're your friends and allies who understand where you're coming from. They help you feel like you belong, back you up (even if only gently) in discussions, and give you a sounding board to help you know how far is too far before you're betraying one side or the other.

Both groups have a few people who reject you dogmatically

There are Christians who will say you can't possibly have respect for the faith if you believe gay people can enter the Kingdom of God. And there are non-Christians who will say you can't possible have respect for gay people if you believe anything Paul says. They will shut you out of their lives and circles of friends.

Often, these are not people whose company you're eager to keep anyway. As a questioner and investigator, you probably prickle at dogma from either side.

To my surprise, I've found that these people are also in the minority. Don't get me wrong; plenty of people think along those lines. But the ones who will actually sacrfice a good human relationship, when it comes down to it, for the sake of an abstract belief, are few.

Both groups have a majority of people in the middle

I have a good chunk of friends who are non-Christians, a good chunk of friends who are Christians, and a good chunk who are questioning or who have been at some point in their lives Christians. I have Muslim friends and Buddhist friends and Jewish friends and Hindu friends.

We all share one bit of common ground: we think human life has some kind of meaning or higher purpose, and we think self-sacrificing love is the highest value. (However, I've also got friends who deny the former — I find that only the latter is the real non-negotiable when it comes to getting along with someone.)

Many of your Christian friends might accept the olive branch that you both consider yourselves believers and are doing your best to understand and live out Christ's teaching.

You have to know your boundaries and modify your expectations of others' boundaries

What are you willing to accept from a person in your life? Do they have to believe the same as you, or always act as you hope people would act?

I work at a Christian school and I have colleagues across the ecumenical spectrum. There are some I agree with and some I disagree with. I have three options:

  1. Draw a line and avoid forming relationships with them
  2. Ignore their stated beliefs and form relationships with them
  3. Form relationships proportionally to the degree I can change them

The latter is pretty unrealistic, but we're all kind of subtly doing it to each other all the time. :)

How far are you willing to go in putting aside differences for these relationships? And do you expect others to go farther?

A case study

I teach at a Christian school with a range of ecumenical views, and have heard both defences and disparaging of gay people as loved and accepted by God vs. inherently in sin. I have felt sometimes that I'm well-placed to do good work within our faith and sometimes that there's no point aligning with an institution that can tolerate the other view. There are colleagues I have closer relationships with and colleagues I have less intimate relationships with, and it's partly for these reasons. I stay because I still feel I have enough freedom to do and say what I believe.

Meanwhile, I know there are students who question their faith and students who hold fast to the same principles you and I rejected from our childhoods. The former tend to feel I'm someone they can trust, whereas the latter sometimes give me course survey feedback saying my course "did not develop their spiritual journey", and I perfectly understand and accept why. I would have said the same at their age.

Two criteria most of them rate highly, however, are "respecting the teacher" and "feeling cared for". When dealing with these topics in class, I say over and over that we are doing our best to understand the Bible and live like Christ, and that I know there are views other than mine, but this is the best I can do. And as I said above, that reaches across the divide for the majority of people, in favour of relationships.

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As I understand it, the first part of your question boils down to this: How can avoid conflict and ultimately a falling out with friends who have a fundamentally different view on a certain topic. Note that I don't say religion here because I believe that many people (including me) have experienced or are experiencing what you're going through with regards to some other topic. that could be politics, philosophy (in particular ethics), economics, maybe even natural sciences, the fundamental issue is the same.

For me personally the most prominent one of these has always been politics. Many acquaintances friends or even partners of mine have very different opinions and are often vocal about and eager to discuss them. This of course invites conflict because people will often take disagreement on something they believe to be right (in a moral sense) personal.

It has happened to me on more than one occasion that a seemingly innocuous conversation turned to current events, then to questions of ethics and then what can almost be described as a fight that left both sides insulted and bitter. Enough of those and any friendship can be ruined.

So what do I do to avoid this? Here are some options and my personal experience with whether or not they're effective:

  • Find friends that agree with you: That's not a good idea. You might miss out on a great many friendships this way. Also you don't want your friend group to be an echo chamber where everybody reinforces each others opinions.

  • Lie about your convictions: Lying is always bad. And doing it just to appease someone is even worse. They also might just pester you with it even more because they think you agree with them and you'd have to keep your stories straight across your different friend groups. This is a recipe for disaster.

  • Refuse to talk about it: This rarely works. Unless all your friends are introverts and very shy about voicing their opinions, there will always be moments (maybe when alcohol is involved) when someone brings up something controversial, religion, politics, sex, their favorite superhero, you name it. You can of course choose to not participate in such a conversation if it emerges or outright tell people that you're not willing to discuss these topics but more likely than not they will take offence at that too and label you the "boring friend" who never wants to talk about anything "interesting". That is of course not a fair assessment but at least the people I know are like that.

  • Just keep nodding: This is my personal favorite. You can't keep people from bringing this stuff up, they won't let you opt out, you can't just change what you think and you're not willing to lie about it, so what's left? Just listen, nod and when asked about your opinion go "hmm, interesting, I haven't really thought about it that way" or "yeah, I see your point". You don't have to outright agree, you don't have to question them, you don't have to argue. This works so well because many people don't want a discussion, they want someone to listen to them. And nothing could be simpler than that.

A personal example: I'm talking with friends, the conversation turns to economics, someone says to me that the government should tax the rich less. I strongly disagree. Do I engage? No, I listen, nod and sip my drink. After they're done with their rant they feel good about having voiced their opinion, are thankful that I listened and no feelings are hurt. If I had engaged in an argument I would have risked offending my friend without actually achieved anything. People tend to get MORE entrenched in their views when you try to convince them they are incorrect.

Of course there are limits to this. You have to be very certain where your moral boundaries are. For example, I would not be friends with someone who is racist or homophobic. So if I hear someone voice such views I will express my disagreement and then politely leave and not speak to them again.

As for your question about finding people to discuss these topics with: look for people for who take discussion seriously and are thus less likely to get offended or spout unfounded radical views. That could be a debate or book club, a local philosophy meetup. You name it, be open to try new things here until you find something that fits you.

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    Your list of options doesn't include what I think may be the best option, which is "Find friends who are willing to disagree and still remain friends". Nodding along with people you don't agree with is tantamount to lying about your beliefs, it's just a lie by omission. The best part about finding better friends is that you only have to do it once and then the rest of your time with them is more enjoyable – Kevin Feb 15 at 23:34
  • @KevinWells Yes, but that sort of conversation usually requires knowing each other well enough first so again you have to be a bit conflict avoidant before that point. And even then, not everybody you're friends with has to be someone you can have a deep discussion with. There are many different types of friendships. – Peter Feb 16 at 9:23
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    As a conflict-averse person, I do a good deal of listening and nodding. I agree that it often makes people feel safe and understood and like I'm "chill", which usually leaves them open to me expressing my own view when I choose to. So that's good. However, I definitely have had occasions where people were surprised to find out later that I didn't agree with them, and I'm sure others think so but haven't yet heard me express otherwise. So that is a side effect. But it's not everyone, and it helps if I say what I think fairly early on... and then resume nodding. – Euchris Feb 19 at 4:00
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As someone with many friends and family with whom I have no common ground, I can share a little bit of advice here. In fact, I'm somewhat on the other end of your situation with a couple of people (i.e. I'm the conservative Christian and they're drifting away).

You basically have two options. Either:

1. Don't talk about important issues: This is easy but not very conducive to a close relationship. If you and the other person have some other interest in common that you can come together over, then this becomes more viable and you can simply steer clear of disagreements that are likely to cause conflict.

Or

2. Clarity over agreement: To steal a phrase from Dennis Prager, "clarity over agreement" is a great principle in any relationship. It's more important that you and the other person understand one another's position than that you agree. If both you and the other person value the relationship, but also have principles that you're not able to compromise on and that are too important to simply ignore, then I don't know of any other option. Learning to understand each other in spite of disagreement is an extremely powerful bonding tool for relationships. In fact, it's so powerful that it even works if only one of you commits to it.

Thus my advice to you: seek to really understand the what and the why behind your friends' and family's beliefs. Be proactive about it, too. When some disagreement comes about, and they start to warn you about the dangers of pursuing "liberal theology" etc., ask them questions about their perspective. Be genuine about it too; they're warning you because they care about you, on your side of the relationship it's imperative to understand their concerns. Don't argue with them at this stage, just try to understand. They will respect you for it, and it's likely that they will reciprocate. Though not always, so don't count on it.

I would also warn you that for this to work, it's extremely important not to accuse people of having hidden corrupt motives (such as "bigotry"). This is poison for the relationship, even if you don't make the accusation to their face. In addition, it's often unlikely to be true, which you may discover if you do make a proactive effort to understand what they believe and why.

For the sake of the relationship, this "clarity over agreement" approach can work even if it's one-sided. If you try to understand their beliefs but they don't try to understand yours, it can certainly be frustrating, but if that's a sacrifice you're willing to make, the relationship can be preserved. If, on the other hand, they also try to understand your beliefs, then this can take the relationship to a new level of intellectual intimacy. Having a debate with someone whom you love, understand, and respect is a great joy that a lot of people never get to have. If you play your cards right, you may get that opportunity. However, if only one of you seeks clarity over agreement, you can still maintain a relationship, but it's not advisable to get into a debate. That can sometimes take a great deal of self-control, and you may feel that you're letting them walk all over you. However, you can't be defeated in a debate if you never get into one in the first place. If the relationship is worthwhile, sometimes it's necessary to make a one-sided sacrifice like that. (As an example from my own experience: I am an extremely conservative Christian, but my family is all very liberal and most would not consider themselves Christian. When we all get together, it's common for them to start talking about LGBT-related issues, and naturally my perspective is diametrically opposed to theirs. However, we can maintain a good relationship because I'm willing to hear them out even though they haven't shown any interest in understanding my perspective.)

One final note: It may be that their beliefs are simply incomprehensible to you. If that's the case, remember that your beliefs are also incomprehensible to them. You can still respect them and if you've done your best to understand their perspective, then you'll just have to live with that reality. The relationship can still be maintained.

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Religion plays a role in interpersonal relationships. Shared religious views are a strong indicator for the success (in terms of duration) of a relationship, see e.g. https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s12119-020-09798-2.

One can assume that this is — to a lesser degree — true for non-intimate friendships as well. It will probably be harder to maintain friendships with people whose religious beliefs are very different from yours, on either side of the spectrum.

That said, the strategy to keep in contact with those "religiously different" friends and acquaintances is the same as with friends who have radically different political views: Don't dwell on it. Since you are tolerant towards different views, and you are not proselyting, you have no incentive to actually talk about religion; focus instead on the things that are important to you. You want to keep the contact because you are interested in the persons. The people around us and their well-being are what matters in the end. For example, when your religious friends talk about a church meeting you can direct the conversation towards the people you know that attended and ask how they are, how their children are doing etc. If they insist on discussing religious questions politely reiterate that yes, both of you have different views on some issues, but you still want to be able to keep them as your friends, and that it would be sad if they shut their doors — figuratively and literally — because of questions of doctrine. It would probably help if you said that you accept (and regret) that they believe some of your views are unacceptable, but that you arrived at them through prayer. I'm not sure whether it's not too much dwelling, but to me there is also a strong religious argument that it may be more sinful to live a lie and follow church rituals and say prayers without believing in them. In the end you follow your conscience, and there is no much you can do about it. And after that exchange, I'd quite consequently try to deflect such discussions with a shrug, an apologetic smile and a "you know how it is", unless you are actually interested in having them.

On the other end of the spectrum it will be easier to avoid religious discussions: Your conversation partners won't typically bring it up, and if topics arise where your opinion is informed by your faith you can simply formulate an answer in non-religious terms. Instead of calling something "sinful" or "forbidden" you could simply say "wrong" or "unethical". That's not a lie; how your compass of right and wrong is founded is none of their beeswax. If they ask explicitly about your religion make clear it's your own opinion, which also has changed in the past; in the end we all must answer these questions for ourselves, so there is no absolute standard (something you have experienced first-hand), even if each (!) doctrine says otherwise. That should deflate the momentum of such attempts.

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I understand your need for getting along with people of both group, without using any kind of double language. As someone who found love with someone being very different than my acquaintance circle, I sometimes have to ease on some cultural shocks similar to this one, when it comes to being environmentalist or politically engaged and so on.

I did face pressure from both sides as well: relatives thinking I could make some more efforts to "consume better", use more second hand, recycle and eat organic food, always more local, don't travel by plane etc. etc. and on the other hand live with someone I basically taught recycling even existed and thought I was a green fundamentalist for even bothering.

We've been raised in the beliefs that our values are universals, and as we grow up, even when we discover they're not, we grow the sense that they should be, which is why we have so much trouble dealing with morally different people. With values, comes judgement, and with judgement comes antagonism.

It takes effort to go past that, effort you could do and could help doing, and effort they could do and could help doing. Practically, this comes in several forms, inspired from non-violent communication:

  • Keeping opinion, especially contradictory, for yourself. See the glass half full, sort of: while you could disagree children should be baptized, you could instead of your own opinion communicate you understand that desire for one to baptize their children.
  • Question assumptions and rhetoric, in order to understand your interlocutor's thinking: why would you think bad of someone else's life, for instance? Maybe the caricature you're depicted in don't come from your behavior, but from some other's behavior.
  • Assert your own choices, but choices you did for yourself. I'm for example a vegetarian, I'm fairly proud of that. Simply stating that fact, make people around me reflect their own choices, and come closer to mine, without me to ever have said eating meat is bad.

Rejection might happen occasionally. I know I prefer staying out of a relationship where I'd have to pretend or lie, I don't see any profit in that. If that is not your opinion, I suppose you could also bend your beliefs to the closest end of your interlocutor, although from my understanding it's not what you're after.

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I can understand your situation very well. I was part of an evangelical community when I was young, and there I made friends. At school, I was bullied for my strange beliefs and strange behaviour.

Over the years, my faith changed, and now I would describe myself as an agnostic. However, I still follow many Christian values, and I like Christian traditions.

I lost all my Christian friends when I left the community. I do not want to join a Christian group any more because I feel that I no longer belong there. But it is also difficult for me to make friends with people who do not have a Christian background.

The only solution that works for me is to find people who have made the same experience. My husband and my best friend once were very religious and then gave up parts of their belief. We understand each other, our values, our likes and dislikes are similar, and we have a lot to talk about.

So my advice is: Try to find people who have made a similar experience. There are many people who grew up in a very pious family or became religious when they were young and changed later on. I cannot tell you where you can find them, but I know that they are out there.

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Stay on common ground, subjects that form the basis of your relationship. If they start ranting about a divisive topic, I simply nod agreement, say things like, "yeah, good point..." and change the subject as quickly as possible to common ground. My golden rule here is to NOT ARGUE with their positions. It starts fights, and you'll lose the friend. Zip it, nod, and listen! Some examples:

  1. One friend with whom I share an interest in the guitar and music has strong political opinions. If he starts ranting about politics, I deftly steer the conversation back to guitar and our favorite albums. Maybe even put some music on.
  2. Another friend is a teetotaler. I will meet that one for coffee, so as to not to make them feel uncomfortable in a bar, where I want to have a beer.
  3. A third friend is a holy roller, with strong religious beliefs, but we share an interest in food; we're both "foodies." If they start pontificating about religion, I steer the conversation back to food.
  4. A fourth friend likes to smoke; I do not. I meet him early, before he starts, and we can relate without smoking together.
  5. A fifth friend is a vegetarian. When I eat with them, I order veggies--even if I'd prefer a nice juicy burger. Not only do I show respect for their dietary choices, but neatly sidestep arguments about diet, animal rights, etc.

Thus, you will be able to maintain your friendships.

It's very rare to meet someone with whom you agree 100% on everything. Even in a marriage--arguably the closest relationship in this life--spouses disagree on things. The trick is to stick to the percentage that keeps you together.

It's tricky, and takes some interpersonal skills. You'll have to be a bit of a diplomat, because often people will drift to the thing that divides you.

Be aware of the "meta" here; cognizant of what topics you should be on with a person. Often when I see people I will consciously think to myself something like, "OK here comes John. We like music and guitar. Keep him off politics."

In this way, I have sometimes become someone's only friend! Some people are really difficult, and find it very hard to form relationships. As one person's only friend, he asked me to drive him back from the hospital after having a procedure. I was the only one he could ask.

Get good at this.. it will serve you well in life. Be "wise as a serpent, and innocent as a dove," and you will never have a shortage of friends.

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An experience that has really helped me grow as a person and get better at interpersonal relationships (which I've always been bad at) has been joining a mountaineering/rock climbing club. In that context, I meet people who I really have nothing at all in common with other than our love of the sport. The thing is, I have to get along with these people, because we have to function as a climbing team.

One of the things I've learned -- and this may seem obvious with hindsight -- is that when in doubt, I don't discuss religion or politics. In your example of the disagreement about baptism, you didn't need to let yourself get lured into a doctrinal debate. You say that you wanted to have a meaningful discussion, but a meaningful discussion doesn't have to be a debate. You can have a meaningful discussion as a spin-off of this topic, without staking out an opinion that you know they won't agree with. For example, I'm an atheist and my wife is a former Catholic. If I was having a conversation with a Christian about childhood baptism, I might bring up the story of how my wife tried to get our older daughter baptized, but the priest refused to do it unless the god-parents flew in from across the country, which they couldn't do. I'm not going to give this person my opinion about baptism as a religious practice, because my opinion would not be of interest to them and would be certain not to persuade them.

Continuing the lessons-from-climbing stuff, a couple of other things that it's helped me to be clear on are that (1) a relationship can be close and trusting in one area while not having to be an all-encompassing mind-meld, and (2) you do need to have criteria about what kind of behavior would cause you to stop wanting to associate with a person.

Re the friend you describe at the end of the question, it sounds to me like nothing is wrong with the relationship except that this friend is tired of mind-melding on this particular topic.

You say, "Although I never was a bigot...," and it kind of sounds like you consider some of your church friends to be bigots, e.g., based on their views about homosexuality. I would draw a line here, but make it a line about behavior. If someone uses slurs in conversation, for me that has been a reason why I decided that I didn't want to expose myself to that person's behavior. If you value the relationship, you can send a message about behavior: "It's not OK with me when you use that word." Then it's up to them whether they value the relationship enough to change their behavior. On the other hand, if you just think they harbor bigotry in their heart, then I would let it go, because everyone has semi-conscious/ingrained prejudices that they know intellectually are wrong.

A lot of what you say seems to revolve around the idea that other people think you're judging them. If someone jokes about stealing a sharpie from work, and your response is to speak up and say that you would never do that, then that's a pretty overt message that you think they're a bad person. If that's the message you intended, then OK, but realize it.

Finally, recognize that your friendship has value. Don't desperately hang on to relationships with people whom you don't like and respect.

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See if you can use your experience with each group to help smooth relationships with the other group.

What I mean is, you feel like your religious friends are judgemental about your conduct while your non-religious friends (seem to) feel like you are judgemental about their conduct. Conversely, you feel like your non-religious friends are critical of your beliefs while your religious friends (seem to) feel like you are critical of their beliefs.

If you can identify how each group could make you feel comfortable then you should be able to apply that to your interactions with the other group to make them feel comfortable. Also, once you've identified things that you can improve, you may be able to train your friends to also improve in those areas.

For a specific example, you say:

As for these people (and me) "meaningful" discussions are very important, invariably, some religious topic comes up, like "kids shouldn't be baptized". I tried to gently state my point of view ("kids may be baptized"), but my friend is clearly uncomfortable with this, saying that if "one" goes down this road it leads to "liberal theology" (code word for apostasy).

and (from comments)

I don't discuss faith stuff with people when they clearly don't care about it, but it still comes up indirectly. Like when people discuss stealing minor things from their workplace I will be the only one to say I never do it (without making a big deal out of it, but my friends obviously know where my ethics come from). Other examples include of drug usage, sex, gossip, etc. Having and stating principles seems to make others think I'm still a fundamentalist, even if done in a non-confrontational way.

In both cases, the more religious side is stating their principles and the less religious side feels that the more religious side is implying that they are a bad person for having different principles. Since no one likes to be a bad person, this obviously makes people uncomfortable. But (hopefully) the more religious side doesn't actually believe that their friends are bad people (or you probably wouldn't be friends with them for very long). So how could you re-do these interactions where the more religious side is able to convey their beliefs but also not lead to the less religious side feeling criticized?

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