Hey Clay

Letter No. 7: What’s The Best Way to Say That You Don’t Believe in a Higher Power?

Hey Clay,

I need your help navigating one of society’s emerging new awkward situations.

I am one of the “Nones” out there…a person who does not follow the belief in a higher power. Though our numbers range from 10% to 20% of Americans, until somewhat recently, it was not something that was considered even polite to profess to, as the word “atheist” still conjures up very negative images for many people. That being said, we are coming out of our secular closet these days, and despite some of the louder, ruder Humanist voices out there, most of us are very polite and respectful of our fellow humans who are believers. I enjoy attending church as a guest, and am always honored to be invited.

What is the most kind and gracious way to say that you are not a person who believes in a higher power when asked by an equally kind and gracious church goer about your faith? While this is not every situation, or even most, sometimes the crestfallen looks I’ve received when I say something like “well, I’m not a church goer, per se…” are so disheartening. I feel it may be because they know the rest of the answer, and I just feel terrible! The last time I timidly said “Actually, I’m an atheist” I got such a sad look…again, I felt like I really ruined their day. There is nothing about my reply that I would want to have sound judgmental about my friend’s faith, and I fear that somehow it might. What is the right thing for a polite and respectful atheist to say to a new friend who is a believer who unknowingly asks about my personal faith journey?

Trying to be good without God

Hey, Trying.

Nones. Yes, I remember reading the Pew Research article that told of the increasing numbers of people who self-identify as Nones. If it’s any consolation, in some circles it’s considered impolite to profess faith in Jesus Christ. So I feel your pain.

Let me give you a little insight into those “crestfallen” looks you’ve seen.

A few days ago, a friend I’ve known for thirty years (who is kind and gracious, and has gone out of her way to do crazy nice personal and professional things for me) told me that she identifies as a None. I’m a Christian, and when I found out, I’m sure my face was awash with despondency, despite my best efforts to hide it.

See, it’s like this.

Christ calls his disciples to not only love one another as he loves us, without precondition or exception, but also to live in such a way that draws people to us and intrigues them to find out what it is that makes us so intriguing, and thus provides an opportunity to share the good news of the Gospel.

That’s not an optional thing to do. It’s required. Of all Christians.

That element of intrigue is Christ. Those who choose to believe in Christ escape wrath and judgment after death and go on to Heaven. Those who choose not to…well, they don’t go on to Heaven.

When I found out my friend was a None, you bet I was disappointed because I love my friend and I’d much rather have her with Jesus and me on the other side of this life. And then like clockwork, the following scene set in Heaven played in my head.

Jesus says to me, “Hey, Clay. You know that friend of yours you mentioned in your advice column?”

Of course, I know where the conversation is going.

“Which friend is that?” I ask.

“You know the one. In the letter about the Nones.”

Busted by Jesus. Not good.

“Oh, yeah. What about her?” I continue.

“Did you ever share the good news with her, like I asked you to?”


That’s a conversation I really don’t want to have with Jesus. That’s a conversation NO Christian wants to have with Jesus.

For goodness’ sake, you’d be disappointed too, right?

Wait. I know you’re a None, but you know what I mean.

I try to never browbeat people with my faith. Hopefully, my faith is a pleasant scent that people enjoy and not some air biscuit floating around driving folks away. I’m going to continue loving my None friend. It’s her choice to be a None, the same as mine to be a follower of Christ. But between you and me, I’m still secretly hoping she’ll come around, even if it’s not on my watch. In the meantime, all I can do is continue to love her and discreetly plant seeds in the hopes they’ll take root.

My response to your question is this: answer in a way appropriate to the circumstances. If it’s tossed out in a cursory manner, give a low-impact, succinct response. However, if the question is posed at a time that’s conducive to a lengthy discussion, give a more full-bodied answer. Since, more than likely, you’ll have a pre-existing relationship with the other person, you’ll know exactly what to say and how to say it when the time arrives.

I’m sure your new (and old) believer friends will value your honesty more than a lie. You can’t control their reaction to your statement of non-faith, but you can control how you react to them. Maybe you should view any future looks of disappointment as a sign that the person is genuinely interested in your well-being, and not take it as a let-down. At the very least, your transparency has the potential to open the door to a deeper level in your friendship.

Reminding you that the gate’s always open for you if you decide to join the fold,

If you have a situation that you’re currently dealing with that you’d like me to address, send an email (with a clever pen name instead of your real name) to me at heyclay@clayrivers.com, and tell me all about it. I’ll read through the submissions, pick one, and on Thursdays I’ll post the chosen letter along with my response here on my blog, my Facebook author page, and myTwitter account. Rest assured, I will not publish email addresses. Ever.

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One thought on “Letter No. 7: What’s The Best Way to Say That You Don’t Believe in a Higher Power?”

  1. Sam Scaggs says:

    Clay, as a non-Christian, agnostic at best person I understand what Christians are supposed to do (share the good word), but let me throw in how that part of it is off putting to me. I tend to just avoid the question even if it’s put directly BECAUSE I don’t want to become someone’s project. I live a moral upstanding life (in general and as much as most Christians I know) and if there’s a club I’m going to be left out of because I didn’t swear allegiance to the right god along the way, well I’m fine with that outcome. I’d probably fit in badly with the clique anyway. Really seems to me that John 4:16 makes the club inclusive though: “God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them.”

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