The Atheist Who Came to Christmas

How loved ones of different faiths can bring out the best—and worst—in us.

By Dawn Stanton, published November 3, 2006 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016


"I don't want to spend Christmas with an atheist."

When I said this to my best friend, our friendship had already spanned a decade, and her atheism had never been a problem between us, not even at Christmas time. I'm the Christian who never goes to church, and she's the atheist who hosts the traditional Christmas dinner. But during a visit a few months earlier, she had harshly criticized Christians. I had heard it before, but this time it struck something in me. Maybe I wanted Christmas to mean something again, and maybe that something did not include atheists.

Beyond our obsession with finding the perfect gift and more subtle than the stress that comes from forced visitation with family we dislike, lies a true modern-day dilemma: holidays with beloved friends and roommates. We love our friends, but matters of faith can be a sticky issue.

Don't get me wrong. There are great things about friends. First, they're not family. They won't demand that you bake half a dozen pies for Thanksgiving just because your mother did. They won't accuse you of ruining Christmas because you spent the holiday in Aspen with your girlfriend instead of Akron with the clan. These are the people we turn to when a spouse deserts us or when family wounds us. Visiting with a friend during the Yuletide season allows us to vent the pressures of the holidays.

Of course, there is a flip side: The difficult thing about friends is that they're not family. They may not make the same demands that family make, but at least you know what family expects. Hence, your friend's approach to the holidays may create a different kind of stress.

"If people are experiencing tension from friends regarding expression of faith, it's more likely they're encountering someone with a different orientation to faith," says Patrick Hughes, an expert on interpersonal communication and an associate professor of communications studies at Texas Tech University. Regardless of whether two friends are Jewish or Buddhist, Christian or Muslim, how each person approaches his religion matters more than whether or not he shares the same religion with his friend.

When it comes to matters of faith, there are two approaches: intrinsic and extrinsic. For the intrinsic person, religion is an internal affair. Watch this person at the office and you may never guess whether he is Protestant or pagan.

"An intrinsic person doesn't need to go to Midnight Mass to feel she is a better Catholic," explains Hughes. "But a person who is extrinsically oriented needs these social outlets more than she needs religion itself." Indeed, the extrinsic person is a whole different story. In an interfaith marriage, Hughes found, the extrinsic partner tends to be relatively less satisfied because he's constantly trying to get his partner to participate in his religion. Potlucks, prayer meetings, and picnics are things that the extrinsic person needs to practice her religion.

Maybe the holidays bring out a little of the extrinsic in both my friend and me. Hughes does say that some people fall into a third category, those who are both intrinsic and extrinsic.

So before you make plans to spend the holidays with your Buddhist roommate, atheist best friend, or born-again Christian cousin, consider Hughes' advice for the holidays:

  • Know your own religious orientation. You either need friends to practice your religion or you don't. If you're normally involved in lots of church activities and social events, you'll be tempted to try to include your non-churchgoing friends during the holidays. When your friend or roommate declines such an invitation, don't push it.
  • Realize that even friends of the same faith may have a different orientation to that faith. Tensions will still emerge between two Catholics if one believes that attending Midnight Mass is paramount to celebrating Christmas and the other doesn't.
  • When conflict appears inevitable, try to reframe the relationship. Instead of looking at your friend's different faith and approach to the holidays as a hindrance to the relationship, look at it as something that makes your bond unique.

I understand my best friend's approach to Christmas better now. We've talked about how important the gathering of loved ones is to her—regardless of religion. Not long ago we spent Christmas together. This year, though, it sounds like she's planning to spend the holidays with her other best friend, who's Jewish.