Guest Post: Play Dates, Religion and Knock-Knock Jokes

The following is a guest post by Amy Watkins, a poet, artist and host of the weekly poetry podcast Red Lion Square. She writes about atheism and parenting at

Making friends as an adult is awkward, slightly less awkward than dating only because there’s rarely sex involved. All the same issues apply. Do we have things in common? Are we compatible emotionally, financially, and ideologically? It’s not like I have list of friendship deal breakers, but I’m a broke, introverted, atheist teacher with an art habit and an 8-year-old. Some friendships just aren’t going to work out.
For my daughter, making friends is still simple. She just marches up to the other kid and says, “Hi. I’m Alice. Let’s be friends.” That’s how she became friends with L. L and her mom J cut through our apartment complex on their walk home from school. Alice, playing outside, befriended L simply by being friendly. Soon L and J were stopping most afternoons to play in the apartments’ common area, and J and I eventually struck up brief conversations about the kids, the weather and preschool.
I was nervous when they invited us over for a play date. When Alice was a toddler and I was a stay-at-home mom, I never hit it off with other parents at the park or story time. None of them ever talked about themselves, sticking instead to the one thing we had in common–our kids. The small talk quickly bored me or made me feel vaguely judged or, worse, vaguely competitive. Our kids were a mask that let us pretend we were all middle class with no political opinions or controversial problems. Sometimes I felt a strong urge to swear or shout, “I have $80 in my checking account! I don’t care about choosing a preschool! I have a master’s degree, for fuck’s sake!”
At J’s, I sat in the living room as anxious as a girl on a blind date, relieved that the house was a little messy and the baby was toddling around in a diaper. Turns out we had a lot in common. We both had daughters and had been both stay-at-home and working moms. She had been a theater major in college–not the same as my creative writing degree, but we both knew Shakespeare, loved art and had often answered the question, “What are you going to do with that degree?” It was a great first play date, and we invited them to an open house at Alice’s dance school the next week. While the girls were in class, J and I had coffee and didn’t talk about our kids. She was smart and funny, talkative but interested in what I had to say. I liked her big curly hair and her openness. It felt like I was making a friend.
On the way home from dance class, L pointed out the car window, “Look, a church.”
Without pause, Alice replied, “I don’t go to church. I’m not ever going.” In the front seat, I kept my eyes on the road and held my breath, thinking, You can’t just jump into a religious discussion on the second play date! You have to ease it into conversation around play date eight or ten after casually swearing and name dropping Chuck Darwin. You’ll offend them and then neither of us will have a new friend.
What matters in friendship, the big or the little things? And which is religion? Is it too big to overcome, something with which we will always hurt or offend each other if we don’t see eye to eye, or is it one of the little things we can agree to disagree about, like reality TV or Thai food? I have friends from a wide spectrum of faith and skepticism—agnostic recovering Catholics; militantly anti-religious atheists; thoughtful, devout Christians; hip young churchgoers who picture Jesus as the sort of guy you could take out for a beer. On hopeful days, I believe we enrich each other’s lives, help each other see the world through a different lens. Other days, I feel only the disconnect between our points of view. When it comes to making friends with other parents, the assumptions we make about each others’ religious views are another mask to get past. I think of a lesbian mom friend saying she doesn’t want to “pass” for straight but is exhausted by having to come out over and over. I feel the same.
In the backseat, they kept it simple. “Well, I’m going to church,” L said. “When I grow up, I’m going to church all the time.”
“Well,” Alice said, “I’m not.” Then they told knock-knock jokes all the way home.


  1. jamessweet says

    Yeah I hear that. Most of the new adult friends my wife and I have made since having kids are pretty non-religious. A couple are explicitly atheist, but most are either more like pantheist or (populary definition of) agnostic, or mostly just apatheist. And most are pretty scornful of Christianity, or at least organized Christianity.

    But there is one couple we are friends with that is Christian through-and-through, doing the Vacation Bible School thing and everything. We have a lot in common on almost everything else, and we do very much like them and are friends with them… but I can’t say it doesn’t interfere with the friendship a bit. We feel kinda out of place around their circle of friends (who are all from their church). There is occasionally some tension on Facebook.

    They are totally cool about it, even with my wife and I both being outspoken atheists — even anti-theists really. But it’s just such a fundamental thing to one’s worldview, that it does complicate things.

  2. says

    I (almost) never plug my own posts, but your ending reminded me totally of this:

    Kids have it right. So simple. So straightforward. I wish we could do it that way forever. “Hi; I’m Kim. Here are my opinions, passions, and hangups. Also, I’ll probably interrupt you all the time and I probably secretly think I’m smarter than you. Wanna be friends anyway?”

    Which is to say, I feel you.

  3. Chris says

    I think this speaks to Dawkins’s argument on religious children. He talks about how we should cringe when we hear *insert denomination here* child, arguing that a kid is far too young to make a decision on his/her view on the origin and nature of the universe. It’d be like saying a Republican or Democrat toddler. Alice and L swept over an issue that usually turns into an awkward tango of a dicussion in no time, and probably haven’t thought about it since.

  4. Georgia Sam says

    That post overlaps with my experience in some ways. I sometimes describe myself as a “recovering Southern Baptist,” & most of my relatives, including siblings and my adult son & daughter, are devout Protestant fundamentalists. We love each other, take care of each other, appreciate each other’s good qualities, & always have a great time when we’re together. We just don’t talk about religion much. (I think one reason for that is unpleasant memories of some intense arguments about religion between my dad & his siblings — also fundamentalists but of a different sect — when we were younger.) I don’t try to convert anybody to my philosophy, & as long as they don’t try to convert me, we get along just fine.

    About 3 years ago, one of my nieces wrote me an e-mail message in which she said she had given up on Christianity but still felt a need to belong to some kind of “spiritual” community, & asked for my advice about that. She said I was the only member of the family she felt she could reach out to. I didn’t really feel very well-qualified to advise her, but I offered some ideas along with lots of support & encouragement, & today she is affiliated with a Unitarian congregation & seems very happy there. That experience made me very happy, both that I have close ties to my family, & also that they know where I stand, in case anybody wants to “come out” as a skeptic about religion or whatever.

  5. smrnda says

    I don’t remember it being quite that simple when I was young, but I might just not remember actually being young and I’m thinking more tween and teen years, where all your friends were meticulously vetted to make sure they were ‘hip’ enough.

    Though I feel like I have a pretty extensive checklist in my mind of qualities and opinions I like and dislike, I rarely end up meeting people that I can’t be friends with but a large part of that is that things I do to meet people tend to be things that provide some degree of a self-selection effect. I end up meeting people who are more or less on the left, not particularly religious and who like art and music. Though in some ways people I know are ‘diverse’ (like ethnicity) in other ways we’re remarkably similar.

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