Lately, I’ve been feeling like I’m in danger of becoming depressed again. I recognized the signs early and decided to try to prevent it by forcing myself to get out of the house more often. I told one of my best friends about it, and she is extremely religious. She offered to take me to church with her, and I accepted, partially because I was in desperate need of social interaction and partially because I’ve never actually been to a church service before and was curious as to what it would be like.
This past Sunday, the sermon concluded by telling church members to do more to “spread the word of God,” to “pray for their neighbors who hadn’t accepted Christ as their savior,” and to “bring their non-Christian friends to church.” I was extremely offended by this and, after looking back on the previous week, began to suspect that my friend might have invited me solely to convert me (we had briefly touched on her religious devotion and my atheism before). When she asked me why I was upset later, I explained to her that I felt that praying for people to become Christian was very condescending and that attempting to convert people interfered with their freedom of religion.
She then began to quote the Bible at me and told me that she just wanted other people to feel the love and acceptance of Christ. When I asked if she had considered that some people might feel they get this love and acceptance from a different god or that some people might not even need or want that love and affection, she basically told me that she wouldn’t tolerate any other religious beliefs. She was so closed-minded and intolerant about it that it scared me. Before she became this religious, she was one of the most open-minded, logical people I knew.
My dilemma is this: I don’t know whether I should go back to church with her or not this Sunday. On the one hand, I am still in desperate need of social interaction, and she is willing to help me in whatever way she can. I also know that she’ll ask why I don’t want to go, and I don’t want to risk upsetting her by explaining it. On the other hand, this new religious side of her scares me, and if she’s trying to convert me, I don’t want to continue to go to church. I’m also offended by some of the content discussed in church and don’t know if it’s worth the social interaction. And if I decide not to go to church, what should I tell her?
At a Loss
Dear At a Loss,
First of all, I’m impressed that you’re intervening to prevent another episode of depression. It is something to take seriously, and having an assertive attitude about taking care of it is a good predictor that you will succeed. Yes, getting out and being more social is one of the healthy habits that can help, along with good eating habits, good sleeping habits, regular mild exercise, avoiding alcohol and drugs, and having some kind of expressive recreation like a hobby. If these habits are not sufficient, be open to consulting a doctor for possible medication and secular counseling. With the willingness and determination to do whatever it takes, depression can be managed; if you don’t manage it, it manages you.
Depression can make you vulnerable to the manipulations of others. Subtle thoughts of having little or no self worth can cause you to think that you’re lucky to have any friends at all, so you put up with friends who aren’t necessarily good for you. They can also reduce your ability to be assertive and to say no to doing things you’d rather not do. Subtle, pessimistic thoughts about how various solutions probably won’t work can cause you to desperately reach for solutions that are very unlikely to work or have lots of strings attached.
I think that your initial suspicions were right. Your friend’s main motive for urging you to attend her church was revealed by the marching orders given to the congregation at the end of the sermon. There is most likely continuous pressure to bring in new converts, and plenty of praise for doing so. Later, during your quite skillful discussion of your objections, she disclosed her intolerance for differing beliefs, her tunnel vision focus on evangelizing, and her disregard of the actual problem that you have. She “just wanted other people to feel the love and acceptance of Christ.” Yes, and I suspect that she also really wants that to happen through her efforts. You’re a trophy to win for ego and prestige.
I think your depression is whispering lies to you. It’s telling you that you have few options for social relations when you probably have several that you haven’t considered. It’s telling you that friends with ulterior motives are the best you’re going to get. It’s telling you to not risk upsetting your friend by clearly explaining what you need and what you definitely don’t need.
You say “she is willing to help me in whatever way she can.” Okay, then ask her to help you in ways that have nothing even remotely to do with religion or the church, and you’ll either get the help, or you’ll see that her willingness is much more conditional than she admits. If she comes through, great. Then I am wrong in my assessment of her, and I’m glad. If not, move on. Either way, it is absurd for you to even consider going back to that church, since you found the content to be so inappropriate and offensive.
What should you tell her? “Thank you, but that’s not for me.” Tell her briefly exactly what you think and how you feel. Don’t make it sweet or bitter, just straight forward, honest and succinct. Tell her politely but not apologetically. You need not make any apologies for not believing that stuff or for not wanting to go. If she takes offence from what you say so simply and honestly, then you’re not offending her, she’s creating the offence inside of her. She’ll have to handle that; it’s not yours to fix.
At a Loss, begin by changing your name to Winner. You deserve a great deal better than having to settle for life size standup cardboard cutout friends and acquaintances at a church where you don’t even believe the first belief. You deserve to be treated as a friend genuinely, without hidden agendas offering blanket cure-alls that benefit the salesmen rather than you. Yes, you need social interaction, but not the kind that will end up depressing you worse. Avoid churches and bars. Not good for atheists with a tendency toward depression.
Use that clever mind of yours. You formed incisive arguments to challenge your friend’s evangelizing and her narrow-mindedness. In the same way, challenge your own assumptions about the scarcity of your local resources, and come up with creative solutions for your social needs. Join some kind of secular group, a walking club, a naturalist club, a book club, a group working for a secular cause. Look into a Unitarian Universalist Congregation in your area. Their “churchyness” can vary, but many of them have large numbers of atheists and agnostics who are looking for a positive social forum just like you.
You have an awareness that warns you of the oncoming depression. That is a huge advantage that many don’t have. You have a bright, sensitive and articulate intellect. Use it to avoid getting stuck in the mood mud by doing all those healthy habits I mentioned at the beginning, and to debunk the defeatist thoughts that tell you that you have very few choices. You have a much wider range of opportunities for friends and socializing than that. Find them!
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