Note: When letter writers sign with their first names instead of a pseudonym or nickname, I randomly change their name for added anonymity.
Is it dangerous to join a church out of pure social interest?
This weekend, I attended a very small conservative church with a friend of mine. The women wear scarves over their head, and it is taught that men are servants to God, and women are servants to men. This was mentioned twice at the sermon. The church is very small and in a bible belt state, and not part of a larger denomination. It borders on being a cult, as most of the members are related in some way.
I went there this weekend, one thing led to another, and a friend was my “witness” as I professed giving my soul up to Jesus and the Lord. I felt very coerced into the whole thing, and my interest in seeing what sort of culture exists in this small congregation got me in over my head.
Where do I proceed from here? I know too many of the people – from being secular friends – to back out and not have them chastise me and try to ‘save’ me again. Is it wrong to go to this church socially, and lie to their faces, just to gain knowledge of the workings of this small cult-like church? Is there any knowledge to be gained, or am I playing some sort of dangerous game with my mind? I do not wish to be brainwashed, but take it from me – two days have already been very detrimental to my atheism.
The way you describe being curious about the culture and workings of this church with a kind of intellectual detachment, you sound as if cultural anthropology is a hobby of yours. Well, there’s nothing wrong with that. I know a guy named Hemant Mehta who had a similar curiosity, and he turned it into an excellent book. Your mistake was to investigate a church too close to your home, with people whom you know. Now you’re wondering how you can disengage yourself from their church with the least amount of disappointment or offense to them.
But the question arises whether or not you actually want to disengage from it. I hear both a difficulty in being assertive, and a little uncertainty about your own beliefs. Maybe you simply have a hard time saying “no” to your friends, and so you felt pressured into making that ritual commitment. Some church services can be very emotionally compelling or manipulative, and some people can get swept up in it in ways that feel coerced or less than voluntary.
Maybe you’re just lonely. I can certainly understand that, but there are other ways to remedy that without the entanglements that you are describing.
On the other hand, you also sound like you are not sure that you can keep your wits about you, and that you will somehow be seduced into really becoming a believer. You speak of playing a dangerous game in your mind and not wanting to be brainwashed, saying that the exposure so far has been detrimental to your atheism.
If in your own mind you are very clear, settled and confident about your atheistic views, then you’re not at any risk to end up believing something that you don’t want to believe. But if you are ambiguous in your position, or if to some extent you want to believe what they believe, then by hanging around there you will probably get what you want. That is, after all, what they do there. They practice on each other, convincing each other to believe.
So the first thing to do is to know your own mind, and then to make up your mind. If you want to get away from this group, then given that you have some difficulty asserting yourself, I recommend that your best course is to quietly back away. Disappear for a while. Take a vacation. Out of sight is out of mind. When you come back home, don’t go to more meetings, and don’t bring up the subject with anybody. If and only if a member whom you know invites you to attend again, say “Thanks, but I decided that I’m not interested,” and then change the subject. Do not volunteer any further details or reasons. Your responses should be neutral, bland and uninteresting, supplying nothing against which they can argue. The less you say the better. You must bore them away. One or two might persist, but if you always respond with the minimum, being flat and opaque, they’ll eventually give up.
Yes, you might have to pay some kind of social penalty. They might accept your decision, or they might chastise you or try to save you again, but I think it will be worth whatever awkward or uncomfortable moments you have to face to get out of this self-set trap of pretending. If they reject your friendship over this, then frankly such agenda-laden friends are not much of a loss. You can find better friends.
The longer you wait the harder it will be. Better that they are disappointed now than really angered later, if they find that you have been deceiving them for a long time in order to observe them as if they were rain forest aborigines.
As for your ethical question, “Is it wrong to go to this church socially, and lie to their faces, just to gain knowledge of the workings of this small cult-like church?” Yes, I think it is wrong for you to mislead them, appearing to agree with them just to satisfy your intellectual curiosity, or just to have some company, if that is all it is. There’s no need to confess that to them, just stop doing it.
For the longer term Brad, begin to find ways to nurture more self-confidence so that you can have friendships without having to please people by going along with things you’d rather not do, and making commitments you’d rather not make. You might benefit from taking a course on assertion, so that you don’t let “one thing lead to another,” as happened in the church. Then you can be intellectually curious about what people do, but still be able to have boundaries and keep whatever limits of involvement you feel are appropriate for you. Eventually, you will be comfortable and self-assured, and able to frankly tell people what you believe and don’t believe. You will have attracted friends who accept you as you are, so no one has to pretend in order to gain the approval of anyone else.
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