This is part of an exploratory series where I’m “expanding my table” and inviting other voices into my world. “Not Like Me” is an honest attempt to reach across traditional and perceptual divides to try to understand and perhaps gain a little insight. Are you not like me? I invite you to send a note.
Today, let me introduce you to Chris – a deeply engaging, interesting young man who isn’t like me. He has rejected his Christian upbringing. Perhaps you know someone like this or have a family member who has entered the “none” religious category. I’ve learned plenty and I hope you do too.
I met Chris M. online. He’s a thoughtful, engaging twenty-something man who is currently unmarried. He was raised in Texas, part of a family deeply involved in a Southern Baptist Church.
If it was like my upbringing, Sunday school, Sunday worship and Sunday evening prayer service were habitual, an expected extension of family life. Throw in Wednesday prayer, youth group and various socials and we were “going to church” nearly every day of the week.
His father was a deacon in the church for most of his life and still teaches Sunday School.
But Chris no longer embraces the faith of his father. He has left the Christian faith that was so much part of his young life, but not without some agony.
A long and painful road
In my interactions with him, he told there was something he wanted to stress about what he calls his “deconversion.”
“It was long and very painful,” he wrote. “It is not easy to have your entire belief system ripped apart in front of you, piece by piece, and it’s even harder when you’re doing it yourself, with complete uncertainty about the result. It is not an end that I pursued, but a conclusion I found myself at.”
When I asked him for waymarks, places along the road that he look back and point at, he had a few — but his travels away from faith were a degree at a time. Inch-by-inch his compass was reset and finally, he reached the point in his life he could claim that he no longer believed. All told, he thinks the process has taken about 8 years.
He’s not blaming Christians … completely
I have always heard about bad Christians, those terrible examples of faith that exploit others through manipulation or deceit. They have a way of ruining the gospel that Jesus preached. But they didn’t have a big influence on Chris’ departure.
But there were some examples that have stuck in his mind, like the one time when he was home on break from college. While attending his home church, he was confronted by a church elder who made a comment about the hair that was creeping over his ear.
“It’s so sad that you’ve lost your testimony”, the Pharisee said after looking scornfully at his head of hair.
At that point, he was still actively practicing his faith, but that one comment marked the time when his “involvement in churches gradually decreased.”
“Christians played a heavy role in my departure from the church, but not as much with my departure from the faith. That was an intellectual departure.”
I found this very interesting and mature. Humans do ruin good churches, but we shouldn’t be the one factor that moves someone away from faith.
I always shake my head when I hear, “I’m not a Christian because there are so many hypocrites in the church.” The nature of God and all that our faith embraces makes provision for fallen man. It’s interesting when the standard of perfection for me has a higher bar with humans than it does God.
If God’s reputation has to hang on my good behavior, then we’re all in trouble! Although Chris sees failed Christians, full of judgment and hypocrisy, he doesn’t seem to blame them .
The rise of the “nones”
Chris isn’t alone. There is no shortage of millennials who have left the faith. I think it’s always been that way, as the young person breaks free from his families rigidity and compliance and seeks out his own way. Full of new-found knowledge and independence they have little need for the tradition and belief in a distant deity. Its true that many come back after marriage or children or life. Some never return.
New studies are documenting this deconversion and they are able to make some interesting connections.
The Pew Research Center just released a comprehensive study that claims 80 percent of those who claim to have no religion, termed “nones”, were raised in a religion they chose to leave behind once they reached adulthood. And half of those who have left their church no longer believe in God.
No one can be “reasoned” into faith
Chris’ departure from faith comes from reflection, asking others, and studying. To him, the idea of faith simply doesn’t compute. He has made a rational decision in his mind.
He played the same games I have played at times in my life, daring God to strike Him with lightning, begging for some kind of sign. “Just say something!” I’ve been down that same path of frustration. But Chris doesn’t play those games of destiny chicken anymore. “There just doesn’t seem to be much point.”
Now, I’ve studied apologetics. I can talk about origins of man, the philosophical points that lead us to God, and the science that points to something far more intricate than chance.
“Instead of allowing people to rediscover their faith on their own, we decide to give them a little push. That’s not genuine. That’s manipulation.”
But in my mind, apologetics is really for the believer. It allows me to know in who I believe, persuaded by not only heaven, but by earth. The bottom line is that very few people are enter into the the kingdom of God simply by reason.
All of those points of argument won’t sway Chris and others without that spark of faith. He has to make the leap.
We sometimes make the mistake with people like Chris, that instead of allowing him to discover his faith is that we decide to give him a little push. That’s not genuine. That’s manipulation.
Not an angry unbeliever
Chris is not an angry unbeliever. He comes across as sincere, genuine and respectful. The Pop-Atheist movement today has a certain snark to it, not only embracing their disbelief but publicly humiliating those who believe. You’ve seen the billboards and bumper stickers, and have seen the Internet memes. I don’t have to repeat them here, but you know the mocking you’ve received.
On the other side is Chris. He is still connected to his family and friends who are Christians. It sounds like they have a healthy respect for him as a person which allows them to continue to love him as son, as a friend.
He has been known to sit next to his parents in their church when he visits. He still has friendships with believers. “I am comfortable around people of nearly every creed and belief system.”
He doesn’t hold to Christian tenets except for those who boil down to his moral philosophy. “First, do as little harm as possible, and, second, relieve as much suffering as possible.”
When I asked him why we have universal moral qualities among all cultures, like Don’t murder and Don’t steal, he sees those as sociological developments that revolve around self-preservation.
How should we react to unbelievers?
I asked Chris what I – and others like me – should be doing. How should we react to those who have left the faith? How should we respond to those who have turned against what we hold dear.
He said this. “Listen. Ask questions. Talk to me as you go.”
So what have I learned through this brief interaction with a stranger/friend?
He said this to me. “It’s simple to stop believing in people, and that’s what I did when I left the church.” The Pharisees and the phonies are easily forgotten and easily dismissed.
But for Chris, “It takes a lot longer to stop believing in something a lot bigger.”
I have a feeling his struggle isn’t complete. For thinkers and those who don’t want to blindly leap, the struggle is a lifetime. It’s weighing and observing, it’s wondering and wandering. The journey ends in a destination, but the trail is sharp and steep.
I asked him if I could pray for him and he agreed, although he doesn’t necessarily believe in it. “I appreciate the gesture and the meaning.” So if the prayer is for my sake, or for his benefit, or to move the heavens, I’m still doing it.
I thank Chris for opening up to me and look forward to continued dialogue.
To purposefully push me and expand my world, I’m currently meeting with and writing about people who are “Not Like Me.” I have a full calendar of really interesting and fascinating people. Who am I? I’m a white man in his 50’s, conservative, Christian and devoted to faith and family. There is a whole world of people out there who don’t fit my demographic. Is that you or a friend of yours who would like to converse? Let’s talk.