Holding that people are more important than beliefs, how do we relate to individuals who regard faith as more important than anything else?
I can think of two extreme responses: One option is to always defer to persons of faith, to remain politely silent when they say things that insult, demean, or condemn those of us who don’t believe. On the other end of the response spectrum is the option to avail ourselves of every opportunity to tell people of faith that what they believe is imagined and idiotic.
Rather than opting for either of these two extremes, I find it helpful to seek a balance of strength and kindness.
Each of us must recognize, build, and maintain our own inner core of strength.
I spent decades listening to religious teachings telling me, over and over, that I was inherently weak and could only be strong with God’s help. Credit for any achievement—large or small—was to be given to God alone, and I was constantly on the alert to not give too much standing to my own strength and resolve.
Now, I’m learning to visualize a core of strength within myself. When I feel disheartened, afraid, or overwhelmed, I visualize my inner core of strength. I remind myself of times in the past when I acted with strength, and I remind myself that I am tough. I’m not Superman, but I am strong, and I’m guessing you are too—at least, you can be with the right mindset.
One component of this inner strength is self-reliance. Being self-reliant means you have developed an inner voice that says, “I can depend on me,” and you refuse to let other people, institutions, or events define you or take control of your life. Learning to stand on your own two feet doesn’t mean you can’t lean on someone else when you need to. It does mean that someone can lean on you without knocking you down.
The second part of the equation is kindness.
Treating another person with respect is a form of kindness. Respecting someone doesn’t mean you agree with them—you don’t even have to like someone to show them respect.
A measure of humility is helpful as we attempt to show respect for other people: their existence, their space, their boundaries, their rights, their property, their time, their privacy, their struggles, their experience, their beliefs, and where they are in their own journey.
After my convictions first changed from faith to non-belief, I went through a period of intolerance for people who still believed the things I had believed for most of my life. Gradually, I recognized the need to be more accepting. Today, when I meet a person of faith who can neither understand nor respect my current lack of belief in any religion or God, I try to see the former version of me in that individual—something that helps me to be more tolerant and to communicate respect.
Even when someone is vastly different from any past or present version of me, even when I have no way of relating to how they view life, I can still choose to be tolerant and respectful.
There are limits. I do not require myself to respect the behavior of abusive people. I will not respect hateful ignorance, racism, or other kinds of intolerance.
I can choose—with full confidence in the quality of my character—to avoid or confront such people and attitudes. In these situations, strength and courage may be more important than kindness. But I want to be cautious and reluctant about making the decision that avoidance or confrontation are the only options available.
Kindness with Strength
Kindness works best in partnership with a confident inner strength. Something’s missing if you’re kind only because you’re afraid to be any other way.
Courageous kindness sets and maintains personal boundaries. It says no to being victimized or taken advantage of by others. If you’re interacting with someone who regards kindness as weakness, your strength and your boundaries are what they need to see.
And sometimes you need to stand your ground not because the other person is an abuser or a bully, but just because it’s important for the other person to know where you stand. Sometimes the kindest thing you can do for another person, and for yourself, is to be strong enough—and courageous enough—to speak the truth, even though it’s painful for you and for the person you are speaking to.
At other times, the strongest, most courageous thing we can do is to kindly choose silence when everything in us wants to shout our rational view of things, our rejection of unbelievable fantasies, and the frustration of being treated as a broken person because of what we don’t believe.
The above material on strength and kindness is from A Meta-Spiritual Handbook: How to Be Spiritual without Religion, Faith, or God Copyright © 2018 by Tim Sledge. All Rights Reserved.
Tim Sledge shares insights for growth on his Moving Truths website and tells the story of his journey into and out of faith in Goodbye Jesus: An Evangelical Preacher’s Journey Beyond Faith.