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Relationships can suffer under the strain of religious differences

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Friendship isn’t always easy.

Sometimes, even when two people seem to be in sync about virtually everything, maintaining the relationship takes effort. Often, that involves acceptance and forgiveness.

But what about situations where the friends are not at all alike in one major regard? What if one is religious and the other is not?

Perhaps it should not matter. And it is worth noting that there are all kinds of people who consider themselves religious, just as there is a broad spectrum of personalities among the ranks of those who would identify as nonbelievers.

Still, if it’s a challenge for friendships to endure when the two people see eye-to-eye on everything, what’s it like when there is a difference of this magnitude?

Ann Fennessy said other considerations matter more. “A person’s core values are shown by their actions,” said the music teacher and singer. “My friends – religious or not – show up on time, listen when I talk, laugh and complain and mourn with me. They give me a bite of their entrée or a sip of their wine without revealing any worry of germs. They know when I’m kidding and when I’m deadly serious.”

To be sure, the catalyst for certain friendships has more to do with music, softball or fishing than positions on faith and spirituality. Moreover, it seems like a cartoonish stereotype to imagine that all churchgoers revel in telling skeptics that they are going to hell or that all nonbelievers make a point of mocking religious men and women for clinging to superstition and fairy tales.

But it could be argued that many of us find comfort in the company of those we deem kindred spirits. So how do you keep the religious divide from being an unbridgeable abyss or even just preventing things from getting weird?

“I think the answer is simple: respect,” said Tracy Simmons, editor of the Spokane Faith and Values website. “By respecting your friends you work to understand them, and by understanding them, come to accept them as they are.”

That can mean not pushing people to share your outlook on everything.

“If we focus on the differences we have with each other we will almost always find no common ground,” said J. Scott Miller, a Spokane lawyer who is a leader at his church.

And when it comes to friendship, it has to be assumed that there is, in fact, some shared connection.

To allow such associations to flourish, college professor Wayne Pomerleau said he strives to avoid using religion as a “friendship filter.”

Of course, believer/nonbeliever disagreements are not the only category of potential interpersonal tensions involving religion.

“Sometimes I have more difficulty in my relationships with other Christians than I do with the non-Christians,” said Tara Leininger, a church pastor in Metaline Falls.

But contentious as they can be, doctrinal disagreements take place in a framework of at least a few shared assumptions. What about when two people are simply not on the same page when it comes to believing in God?

North Idaho businessman Dave Wolfe noted that there is an abundance of scriptural counsel on this matter, including “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

Others have additional tips for navigating the potentially choppy waters of a believer/nonbeliever friendship.

“Humility and a sense of humor,” said Carolyn Terry, a retired teacher and gardener.

“Grace,” said Lorelei Plagman, who works for a public school district.

Spokane lawyer and lifetime Catholic Tom Keefe offered this.

“My friends are evenly divided between those who are more religious and those who are less religious than I. Our friendships endure because whenever one of them tries to talk faith with me, I immediately turn the conversation to baseball, and the illogic of the infield fly rule. Faithful or faithless, it never fails to silence them.”

Spokane’s Carol Voogd, who described herself as a “middle-aged Christian woman,” said “It’s easy to have friends when they are attracted to who you are, rather than what you are.”

She added, however, that “I have virtually no friends who are atheists.”

So perhaps it is not always true that opposites attract.

That need not be viewed strictly as a problem, though. Maybe there is an upside to being pals confronting this schism.

“Back when I was a Christian, I had good friends who were not,” said Maggie Fritz, an addiction therapist. “I always felt that they kept me grounded and humble.”

College professor Georgie Ann Weatherby said, “I like to celebrate differences.”

Still, let’s face it. We live in a society rife with divisions, with anger and judgment on both sides of the fence. How do you avoid having that sort of polarization sink a friendship?

“I think acceptance of each other’s values is important,” said Tyson Bird, a high school senior in Sandpoint. “You can’t see the other person’s views as ‘wrong,’ but just accept them as different from your own.”

Community college instructor Betsy Lawrence put it this way. “If we are loving and accepting of whatever helps our friends get through the day, then all can be well.”

Retired psychologist Steve Heaps, an agnostic, has a friend named Jack who is a devout Christian. “We are more truly brothers than many of the guys who happen to have the same parents.”

How do they keep their attitudes about faith from getting in the way?

“We focus on our long history, the fun we have together, our similar political views, our love for each other and our families, and other commonalities that bind us,” said Heaps.

Not everyone could handle that. The difference of opinion on religion would be a high wall between the two individuals.

That’s too bad, said Bill Fields, a 71-year-old retired Avista lineman in Colville. He said those incapable of tolerating conflicting viewpoints on theology seem to miss out on something he believes to be true.

“Good people are good people.”

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