Note: When letter writers sign with their first names instead of a pseudonym or nickname, I randomly change their name for added anonymity.
My name is Aaron and I’ve been an atheist for almost 1 and a half years. I’m almost 25 and was raised my entire life in a fundamentalist Christian church. I married my wife around the same time I knew I was becoming an atheist but kept it to myself. My wife is Christian (though extremely liberally) and she actually took my disbelief well, we have a great relationship. I recently just came out the closet, so to speak, a few months ago to friends and family and it has been hard because my entire family is fundamentalist and so is my wife’s family, in fact I come from a long line of pastors and my grandfather was disappointed that I did not follow in his or my uncle’s steps into missionary school.
Not too long ago my wife’s brother, Lloyd sent me an email.
Lloyd is serving in the armed forces in Iraq, and opportunities to communicate with family are infrequent. The email was a very moving appeal for help. For his privacy, I am paraphrasing it here:
Lloyd said that they need to talk because he’s very confused right now about his own faith, and that no one seems to understand him. He knows that Aaron is an atheist and he does not judge Aaron for that. During his two deployments in Iraq, he has seen horrible things that no one should ever see.
He was raised as a fundamentalist Christian all his life, but when he started to express his doubts and then disbelief in God, people judged him and even said that he was possessed. Many prayed for long periods, hoping he would change his views. He’s confused about perhaps being an agnostic, going between not believing and just not knowing. He needs someone who he knows will not judge him and will help him to go through this, whether it’s to believe again or to stop believing.
Aaron’s letter continues:
I didn’t know how to respond, I was stunned, to say the least. I replied:
“Man, It’s great to hear from you first of all.
I can understand the position that you are in. You can be sure that don’t judge you, I go through many of the same things you mentioned so I can relate. You probably know that I was also raised in the same denomination as you my whole life until I began to doubt these teachings about 4-5 years ago. I don’t know exactly how I can help you, but I can try to point you in the right direction. I suggest that you read more about atheism/agnosticism, etc. I think its important to read from both sides. When I was deconverting I read Christian books like ‘A Case for Christ’, ‘A Case for God’, and I read books by atheists like ‘The God Delusion’ and ‘God is Not Great’, and I am happy about the decision I made.
A lot of people have misconceptions about agnosticism, atheism or skepticism, but don’t be discouraged to question just because of it. People will judge because they are misinformed, and unfortunately they don’t understand.”
It’s been a long while since I have yet to hear from him again. How should I follow up? He is currently serving in Iraq and can only communicate by e-mail. Did I respond correctly?
Thank you for your help,
Just a few hours later I received a second email from Aaron:
So when I first sent you an email I stated that my brother-in-law had not contacted me in a long time and asked for your help, 2 hours later he sends me another e-mail.
Lloyd said that he feels like he’s in a bind. Many of his friends are calling him an atheist in a taunting manner. He thinks there’s nothing wrong with that position, and he’s getting fed up. They say he’s only going through a “phase,” and that he’s deliberately making this up to try to get attention. He said that his doubts and confusion are real and legitimate. If he had proof, he could believe again, but he has reached a place where he cannot turn back.
He apologized for having harshly judged Aaron in his mind when he first learned that Aaron is an atheist, and acknowledged the irony of his present position. He again asked for Aaron’s help, saying that he doesn’t know what to do next.
Your response to Lloyd’s first email was Robin-Hood-splits-the-arrow-in-the-bullseye perfect. I am impressed and grateful for your willingness to be even-handed with him, and to support him rather than any particular beliefs with which he may be struggling. That’s what he needs, what we all need; someone who simply accepts him as he is right now, without an agenda of their own to press upon him.
As you probably know from your own experience, becoming free of religious belief is a gradual and often painful process. For your brother-in-law to be going through it while in a place of danger and horror makes it all the more difficult. In that environment he’ll get the extremes of all the various reactions from others, and he’s already described some of them.
From his Christian “friends” he’s receiving condemnation and disparaging attempts to discredit his motives. From you, he’s receiving love and acceptance without condition. It’s ironic that an atheist is being more Jesus-like for him than those good Christians.
He needs the anchor of at least one human who simply relates to him as a human, without any requirement to agree on beliefs. Just encourage him to be true to himself, whatever that turns out to be, and you’ll be giving him the best gift you can offer.
But he can only email you occasionally, so he also needs someone over there. It is not good for him to feel distracted, rejected and demoralized while in a war zone. If he doesn’t know about it already, the Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers may be of some help to find like-minded people over there. It’s hard, but there are many more than anyone realizes. The trick is to find them discreetly.
If the taunting that he mentioned is from fellow service personnel, suggest that he document the incidents. As a soldier, he understands the principle of being prepared for a battle that you hope you won’t need to fight. There have been some very shameful cases of religious harassment in the military which might have been prevented or minimized if the evidence had been properly recorded. Also, that puts him in the role of actively taking care of himself rather than passively receiving abuse.
Whenever he contacts you, continue to listen without judgment to both his atheist and his religious thoughts, and reassure him that the inner turmoil and the social torment will gradually quiet down. You don’t have to continuously come up with wise and helpful things to say. When you don’t know how to answer something, just tell him the truth and say that. Most of what he must weigh, decide, and go through you can do very little about, but knowing that you simply care about him will be very important to him and will help to sustain him as he finds his path.
Also, here is a link to a whole category of archived posts here on Friendly Atheist about military atheists. Some of the articles will have stories very similar to his experience as well as helpful suggestions and resources in the articles and comments.
I’m impressed by Lloyd’s humility and maturity to apologize to you for his past judgments while he’s in the midst of his upheaval. Hopefully he will return home safely after his deployment is over, and the two of you can enjoy a more direct friendship.
Aaron, you’re a good man and a good friend to your brother-in-law. Would that we all had at least one friend or family member such as you.