Often in atheist and believer circles the issue arises as to whether friendship is possible. On the one hand, the claim is made (usually by evangelical Christians who take their bible literally) this is simply not on. There is too vast a gulf in philosophical outlook, the bible follower confronts enough challenges in living in a sinful world as it is, and in addition, beholds a perceived deficit in morality (not really true!) on the atheist side that may somehow “corrupt the believer”.
These reluctant believers accept it is possible to be “friendly” to believers, but not actual friends. Usually, some biblical citations are given to justify this stance, and it's often taken to the level that not even a dinner invitation would be accepted (which is, frankly, kind of absurd.)
On the other hand, the actual, real life experiences of millions disclose that millions of atheists or generic non-believers can indeed be friends with believers. At the root of the friendship, however, there must be the same foundation for all generic friendships: mutual respect. In other words, mutual friendship rests on mutual respect.
One of my longest lasting friendships (36 years) has been with a believer, John Phillips. (And again, by “believer” I mean one who believes in God, period, not one who takes a certain stance on the Messiah hood of Jesus, or the bible).
Over the decades, since we founded the Barbados Philosophical Society in 1974, as a forum for philosophical and religious debate, we’ve had numerous lively arguments – some quite passionate. (One of the most ambitious was seven years ago in which John attempted to specify parameters for the existence of God, while I challenged each).
At the end of it, however, we knew there were lines that shouldn’t be crossed, and we didn’t. No amount of pride would make us do so, since else we’d have risked our mutual respect. There were too many other dimensions to our friendship (including our own wives and their mutual friendship) to risk it. Further, there were too many issues on which we totally agreed to eschew a friendship based on one area of difference.
In the venue of ‘Our Lady of the Universe’ church, in Black Rock. St. Michael, Barbados, the Philosophical Society brought all religions together – even if sequentially (in terms of various lecturers) who explained what their beliefs were about, and why they believed as they did: usually in response to questions. We encountered: Buddhists, Hindus, Sikhs, Catholics, Jews, Charismatic Christians (Pentecostals) and even Muslims as well as small Christian sects, such as Gnostics and Religious Science.
What I noticed is that as the meeting exposure continued (and usually we had the same audience of 30-40 people each time) numerous barriers began to come down. It was as if understanding allowed a degree of concordance, and even friendship. This led me to conclude all the impediments put up to interfaith friendships were largely contrived. True, one person of faith X may not be able to convert person of faith Y (or vice versa) but why should that be a precondition anyway?
As I showed (in an earlier blog article) all god-concepts are relative as are their sources of revelation, since the human brain is only a finite processing information system. Its very finitude implies deficiency, especially in ascertaining absolute verities. Thus, neither believer nor his sacred book author can actually pin absolute truth down, only asymptotically approach it. We also know the most enduring friendships are based on self-authenticity and each being who or what he is, not sacrificing it on the basis of an appeasement.
I concluded from my experience in the Philosophical Society that if interfaith friendships were possible, especially between radically different faiths – such as Pentecostals and Catholics, or Buddhists and Muslims, then it was possible also between believers and unbelievers.
My friendship with John Phillips is testimony to that, and what I’d hope is that such a friendship would or could become a template for many others.
So, friendship (not just "friendliness") is feasible between believers and unbelievers but it does take the same sort of effort that all friendships require. First and foremost, it can’t be all on one side, there has to be “give and take” or compromise, and then again, based on mutual respect. The latter also implies the other person isn't exploited or used for a non-friendship based objective or goal (e.g. "salvation" or "conversion"). One instead pursues freindship as an end in itself.
Lions may well never lie down with lambs (in most cases) but believers and unbelievers can certainly be friends, if they have the will to do so, and don't allow the words of 2,000 year old (often mistranslated and re-translated) texts to put them off.