About a year ago, I was invited to spend time with my girlfriend, her friend from work, and her friend’s fiancée. Her friend’s fiancée, Jeyne*, was a master’s student in history and held an undergraduate degree in mathematics. I liked Jeyne, and she seemed to like me, too. She was amiable, intelligent, and the more we chatted the more hopeful I became that we might eventually become friends. What happened next was a tragedy, though I did not realize it until much later. Our conversation somehow turned toward the subject of religion and spirituality. I disclosed that I was an atheist, and happily noted that Jeyne seemed receptive to my critique of religion. However, Jeyne then informed me that she believed in a deity named Isis who communed with her regularly. According to Jeyne, Isis had demonstrated her existence beyond a shadow of a doubt. For instance, Isis warned her about Hurricane Sandy before it had been predicted by meteorologists. In another instance, Isis had even manifested herself to Jeyne’s partner during a meditation exercise. I had read about people like Jeyne —educated and secular, but nevertheless beholden to New-Age nonsense— but I had never personally known such a person. I was surprised by Jeyne’s beliefs, but also eager to probe her on this issue. Jeyne, for her part, was as eager as I was to have this debate. Our combined zeal was such that our in-person debate migrated to an email thread spanning several weeks. I thought my arguments were superior, but suffice it so say she did not. We stopped corresponding after a while.
The purpose of this post is not to retroactively win this fruitless debate. Like I said, I felt I argued cogently and respectfully. On the contrary, I am writing this to express regret for my part in the premature collapse of this potentially fruitful friendship. I privileged the vain goal of affirming my own rationality and sophistication over my higher-order goal to foster meaningful relationships. Our disagreement about the fundamental nature of the universe notwithstanding, Jeyne was the sort of person I want as a friend. In retrospect, I ought to have recognized the potential for a small disagreement between two intellectually-combative people who are otherwise very compatible to escalate into enmity. Before discussing an emotionally-fraught issue like theology, I ought to have first established a rapport by discussing innocuous topics like graphic novels and mathematical puzzles. Furthermore, I feel quite hypocritical for fixating on Jeyne’s harmless (albeit kooky) belief when I consider all people I know —friends, family, and co-workers— who hold beliefs I find just as irrational and even more harmful. For goodness’ sake, one of my close friends believes the attacks of September 11th, 2001, were perpetrated by the U.S. government, and a beloved family member is opposed same-sex marriage. Jeyne wasn’t opposed to same-sex marriage; that’s for sure!
It’s entirely possible that even if I had handled our introduction more gracefully, Jeyne and I would not have succeeded friends. That’s not the point. Nor is it the point that religious beliefs ought to be a taboo subject among friends. Rather, I think the takeaway message of this story is that it is salutary to review one’s past mistakes, and to feel a measure of sadness if that’s the appropriate response.
*I changed her name to Jeyne to protect her identity and to make a Song of Ice and Fire reference.