The Unequally Yoked Club: Praying for Reconversion.

We haven’t waltzed together into the Unequally Yoked Club for a while, have we? Strike up the music: today I want to talk about something sparked in me by a comment on a progressive Christian blog. My thoughts aren’t particularly aimed at the person who made the comment; she seems pretty sweet, actually. I don’t bear her any ill will and have no idea if her situation is the same one I experienced. All that said, she was talking about how she always prayed for her husband, a non-Christian, to convert to her religion and felt a little sad and worried about the idea of him going to Hell. It reminded me of when I was married to a Christian, after my deconversion from the religion. Biff prayed constantly that I’d reconvert, and I want to talk about why that tactic backfired so badly on me.

I think just about everybody in the ex-Christian community has some beloved friend or family member or loved one who is desperately praying that the ex-Christian will “see the light” and reconvert. I got told, “Come back to your first love!” and “I’m praying for you to return to Jesus!” like I should have considered those statements as sterling expressions of love and devotion or something. Sometimes they’d almost seem apologetic, prefacing these statements of prayer with “Well, yew know ah’m still prayin’ for ya..”

Line art drawing of a yoke
Line art drawing of a yoke (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It’s easy for me to understand why Christians make those statements. They still believe, despite all evidence to the contrary, that prayer has any effect on the real world. It’s a form of magical thinking, which is defined loosely as “the idea that a particular set of actions and words that are totally unrelated to an outcome can still influence that outcome.” Magical thinking permeates Christianity, and it makes Christians not only incapable of recognizing when their actions and behaviors don’t impact their desired outcome but also incapable of taking actions that actually will. For example, their current efforts to restrict abortion access for women categorically do not actually impact abortion rates–in fact they increase abortion rates because they focus on trying to regulate women’s sex lives, to make sex terrifying and risky, to demonize autonomy and self-determination, and to keep women as ignorant and dependent on men as possible. We know that giving women rights, education, autonomy, and freedom actually significantly lowers abortion rates, but doing that would make Christians feel like they were “condoning sin,” which is their real problem with sex, so they stick with the magic spells approach. They are convinced that their efforts will, one day, if they just do it right or thoroughly enough, pay off with sharply decreased abortion rates. That’s magical thinking at its finest.

Many of them also believe, to varying extents between “might as well try it” and “to the exclusion of all other efforts” that prayer influences medical outcomes and natural disasters’ unfolding, changes gender and sexual orientation, and affects whether or not peace or war will occur somewhere. As long as Christians suffer from this magical thinking, they will keep insisting that their prayers can make someone suddenly accept Christianity’s claims. And that is what Biff was doing with me.

He’d already tried a host of other options. He’d shoved apologetics books at me. He’d tried to force me (with blandishments and even physical dragging at one point) to attend church services. He’d tried “reasoning” with me, and I use scare quotes because nothing he said was reasonable or even rational in any way. He’d even tried humoring me, which consisted of him going to bars and whatnot with me while wearing the most hangdog expression imaginable, drinking beer with obvious distaste to show me how horrible it was that I liked beer and to demonstrate what a good moral person thought of beer, and not objecting too much to the music I now liked. I think now that he was hoping that if he demonstrated that he was “willing” to endure my “lifestyle choice,” then I should be willing to endure his by going to church sometimes, but that backfired because I had never asked him to do any of these things and certainly didn’t care what he did on his own time.

At one point, though, he told me that he’d done everything he could think of doing and everything that his church leaders had told him to do, and he was giving me up to “God.” And by that he meant he would be praying constantly for me to return to Christianity but not making other outward gestures.

For a start, I didn’t believe him when he said that, any more than I’d learned to believe him when he talked about leaving his desire for children on the altar. (That’s something Christians say when they pretend they’re going to stop worrying about something.) I figured this was just a cease-fire in the war he was waging for what he imagined was my soul; once he got another tactic formed up in his mind, he’d be doing that instead. I didn’t know what it was, since I thought he’d exhausted his other options, but I figured one would be coming (and it was indeed coming: threats of violence, but at this point I didn’t yet imagine that he’d go that far). So I regarded his statement of intent as a respite in what was becoming a downright wearisome and constant battle.

But I soon learned that far from being a respite, this statement was actually the prelude one of the most stressful and fractious battles yet between us.

Despite belonging to a fundamentalist religion that stressed prayer and despite being a preacher in that denomination who wanted to go into full-time ministry, Biff didn’t pray a whole lot. I’m not kidding–he talked about praying all the time, but I can count the number of times he actually did on the fingers of one hand. It was always so stressful for me to hear him showboating about how much he prayed during his many sermons. But he suddenly became downright ostentatious about prayer after he realized I was deconverted. I’d be in one part of our apartment doing something like cooking or playing video games, and suddenly I’d hear this keening, moaning wail rise up from some other room, followed by him babbling loudly and in obvious anguish in what he imagined was “speaking in tongues.” This dramatic performance would go on for a while and then finally he’d emerge from that room with red eyes and puffy cheeks. Seriously, he always looked like he was mourning someone who had died (which kinda I guess he was). He’d give me this significant long look as he went about his business, as if demanding that I recognize that damn it, he had prayed for me. I don’t remember ever feeling anything but annoyed by these sanctimonious displays, though. I ignored them, or sometimes asked if he felt a little better now. It had to be very frustrating for him that the coin he offered–minted with Constant Loud Breathless Heartfelt Wailing–was not a coin I accepted anymore. Looking back, I should have just left the house and gone out to do something fun while he was busy posturing; it would have saved me a lot of aggravation and him a lot of tears and sore throats.

At other times, he’d tell me directly that he had been praying for me. He’d announce it with this air of indignation, as if in sheer amazement and irritation that I hadn’t returned to the religion, like I was just this recalcitrant, intractable, pouting child who was doing all this apostasy stuff specifically to hurt and annoy him. Or he’d talk about how he was “claiming my soul for Jesus” and how he just knew, any day now, I’d be reconverting. It was so incredibly insulting to hear him talk like that. Nothing I said mattered. Nothing. My entire person was nothing more than a necessary speed-bump in the road of his life. My deconversion was just a little derailment from the journey. I might fuss and fight a little, sure, but in the end, I’d fall in line again and this whole drama would be a marvelous story to tell our kids–the kids that he knew we were having despite my having told him before we ever got serious that I was childfree. His god had told him that I’d reconvert and then we’d have kids (shades of Gaston’s “strapping boys, like me!”) and it’d all be perfect, you see, so obviously I was going to have to get on the stick here because I was wasting valuable baby-making years.

I know that Christians who find themselves in the Unequally Yoked Club are told to pray for their spouses, and I know that lurking among almost all of these suggestions is this implicit assumption and even sometimes overt assurance that the prayers will be granted with an eventual triumphant conversion, but this isn’t how you do it, folks. I mean that. Jesus said to pray in private, in your closet–and I am certain that by that he meant do it in a way that nobody knows it’s happening, not even the other people in your household. Biff prayed in the closet sometimes, sure, but I’m pretty sure that most of the people in our ZIP code knew what he was doing by the noise he was making.

Meanwhile, I felt when he kept insisting that I’d reconvert with the power of prayer, Biff was making some startling statements about me, our marriage, and his religion that I’m not sure he even realized he was saying, things that I didn’t really even fully unpack until years after escaping from him.

First, he was saying that he thought that he could magically influence me to not care anymore about all the stuff that had led to my deconversion. Read this blog, and you’ll quickly see that I subscribe to a multi-pronged faith approach (an image I got from Evid3nc3 from his brilliant and thorough video series, “Why I am no longer a Christian”–I encourage y’all to watch it all if you haven’t already, because holy COW it’s good). I think that people have a lot of “legs” on the stool of their faith, and that if one leg gets knocked out, that the others will hold that faith steady until another can take its place. The legs of my faith were things like Biblical inerrancy, the power of prayer, moral superiority, fear of Hell, my so-called relationship with Jesus, and so on. I think that it takes a lot of those legs getting knocked out all at once, too quickly for others to take their place, for most Christians to consider deconversion. Things add up and add up and add up; the “deal with it later” pile gets bigger and bigger and bigger, and then suddenly the stool topples. By the time I had decided to quit attending church, every one of those legs had been knocked out from under me. I was 100% positive that Christianity was false, and while I still don’t feel certain or comfortable enough to say that there’s absolutely nothing “out there,” I can definitely say with 100% certainty that the supernatural being described in the Bible does not exist in the form the Bible’s followers assert. But Biff was convinced that by just thinking really hard, he could make me magically form another stool out of nowhere.

Suddenly I was supposed to not care about all the contradictions in the Bible I could now clearly see. I was supposed to just quit being concerned about the fact that almost nothing in the Bible happened historically or science-wise the way the Bible posits. I was supposed to just not care that prayer didn’t actually do squat in the real world, or that the Bible didn’t seem to be inspiring people to be more moral as a group. I couldn’t just un-see what I had seen, couldn’t just un-realize what I had realized. But Biff’s prayers very clearly indicated that he thought this was exactly what was going to happen. He thought that he could make me not care about facts anymore through the power of his prayers. And it backfired because I care enormously about the truth as revealed by facts.

Second, Biff’s ostentatious prayers reminded me that prayer didn’t work. If he thought prayer could reconvert me, then why wasn’t he praying for something really impressive and obvious, like the regrowth of amputees’ limbs or boundless fertility for drought-stricken areas like Texas? Seemed pretty obvious to me, and still does, that prayers for conversion are really very easy to do. If the person hasn’t reconverted, then obviously the answer is “God hasn’t done his miracle yet.” If the person does reconvert through some bizarre happenstance, then obviously “God did it.” I realized just how unfalsifiable prayers are–there is literally no way to say that a prayer simply wasn’t answered, in the cosmology Biff believed.

But there’s another, more insidious side to why Christians have to be so grandstand-y about prayer, and it has to do with dominance and control. You’ve probably heard me say before that if prayer really worked, no Christian would ever have to tell anybody s/he was doing it. And we see this idea in play constantly in society.  Like all these other Christians who ostentatiously inform us that they are praying for us, Biff knew perfectly well that if he didn’t make his praying obvious to me, I wouldn’t know he was praying, and what good would that do anybody? Since Christians say they believe prayer works, meaning that they get the stuff they are praying to get, why do they still feel the need to tell people they are doing it? It seems clear to me that the effects of these prayers aren’t obvious enough without calling attention to them. Every single a time a Christian tells a non-Christian “I’m praying for you,” I guarantee you that this is what the non-Christian is thinking. (In a similar fashion, genuinely nice people don’t have to tell others that they’re “nice guys,” and genuinely good customers don’t have to tell businesses that they are “good customers”–these things should be obvious without having to announce them, while the reality is more often that the Nice Guy™’s niceness and the “good customer’s” value to the business cannot be discerned without advanced microscopes.) If a Christian must tell someone he or she is praying for them, then just about by definition that prayer is useless and the Christian knows it deep down.

Third, Biff’s prayers made me realize just how egocentric his style of Christianity was. Why wasn’t he praying for stuff that really mattered? To him, what he thought mattered most in the world was one person’s reconversion to religion. But I was starting to recognize a distinct narcissistic, egocentric undercurrent in Christianity. Why didn’t he care more about the legions of poor and hungry people in the world? Why was one woman’s reconversion so important to him that he was wasting all this time wailing and tearing at his hair, weeping, and gnashing his teeth over the matter, when there was so much more worthy stuff he could be begging his god to do? And why hadn’t he been doing that all along before I deconverted, if he was so sure that prayer was that effective?

His prayers served to call attention to the fact that modern Christians very often have a skewed and screwed-up sense of priorities, something I still think today when I survey how they more often want to protect predators than deal with scandals, how they’re more concerned with control of the dialogue than with righting wrongs done to marginalized and oppressed people (how else am I supposed to regard fundagelical whining about “having gay rights shoved down their throats”?), and how much more concerned they are with asserting their dominance than with doing what Jesus told them to do, which is to feed the hungry and comfort the sick and widowed–you know, that boring love-your-neighbor stuff. It’s a lot more fun to spend millions of dollars on Ten Commandments monuments and gigantic crosses and bizarrely showy statues for your college campus than to feed people. And I don’t know many non-Christians who haven’t at some point felt they were just a potential notch on some Christian’s Bible cover. I don’t remember if I told Biff to stop wasting time worrying about me and pray instead for something that was actually useful on the larger scale. I hope I did. I find that kind of narrow-focused selfishness in Christianity irritating and distressingly common.

Fourth, Biff’s prayers reminded me that while Christians talk a big game about “free will,” they don’t actually believe free will exists. Biff thought that his god could override my sense of morality and justice, my understanding of history and science, my discernment, my judgement, all of it, and just magically make me believe again. Either he thought that I would simply un-understand and un-realize all that stuff, or he thought that his god could just make me not care about it anymore. Biff thought that he knew better than I did what would make me happy–a sin that many Christians commit against non-believers. He was convinced that I was making some grave mistake, and his prayers would fix that mistake. Christians talk a huge game about the idea of “free will” in Christianity. The idea is that people must freely choose to belong to the Christian god, and that this belonging is all but meaningless without the choice being made to do so. But on the other hand, Christians firmly believe that praying for people’s conversion is perfectly acceptable and even necessary; some even believe that without their god’s influence, that people’s depravity and fallen nature make it just about impossible for them to convert to Christianity.

I’ll just ask one question on that topic: Where was my free will supposed to be in all of these prayers? If I make a decision because a god nudged me in that direction, then is it really a freely-made decision? If this god cared so much about me freely deciding to worship him that he created a cosmology in which humanity had to make a choice about worshiping and could end up in eternal physical torture for not choosing to do so, then how are prayers for my reconversion anything but a raised middle finger to that entire theological construct? Why not go whole hog and just magically deprogram and reprogram me the way he wanted, if he was going to nudge me at all? And if one considers the question of eternal torture as the potential price for disbelief, then aren’t we saying that this god has set up a system whereby I am doomed if I don’t convert, but one in which I am set up for failure by being predisposed to not converting? And if I need a god’s nudging to convert, then isn’t that also kinda saying that if I haven’t converted then it’s kinda that god’s desire that I not convert? There’s a damn fine reason I think Calvinism and other forms of predestination are really talking about a downright evil god, and this about covers why; at least Calvinists are totally honest and up-front about their nastiness.

Fifth and ultimately what made his prayers backfire, Biff’s prayers showed me that he didn’t love me and wasn’t on my team. I’d like to stress that not even once did Biff even make gestures toward compromising or changing his religious outlook. The whole time, what was expected was for me to re-conform to the kind of Christianity I had left. I don’t remember a single conversation about anything else. By these conversations, he showed me that he wasn’t really in my corner. He showed me that he didn’t give a wet greasy damn about how harmful and toxic Christianity had been for me or about the facts I had uncovered about it. He didn’t care about the pain I had suffered under Christianity even as a true-blue believer. Ultimately he cared not for me as a person, an individual with needs, desires, thoughts, and rights, but as a construct in the movie of his life. He had been promised by his god that I would be a good Christian wife to him and be a good heroine for his own personal supporting cast. And that is what he was going to get back no matter what it took. Christianity had caused me a great deal of cognitive dissonance, stress, anger, resentment, bitterness, and heartsickness, and Biff wanted me to plunge right back into that foul, stinking cesspool. He didn’t want me to be happy and healthy, to live in what I now knew to be the truth, to be as good a person as I knew I could be. He wanted me to be Christian again. He wanted everything back the way it was, even though that way was just awful for me. He couldn’t even imagine me not wanting that life back; he couldn’t even conceive of a world where I simply refused.

I don’t know of a single other more effective way possible for Biff to communicate his disrespect for me than to pray for my reconversion. Ultimately, what was important to him was that he have a Christian wife, and he made that crystal-clear. I know that to him, my deconversion was on par with me becoming a drug addict or something–I’ve heard many ex-Christians echo similar things their Christian spouses have implied or flat-out said to them. His inability to understand my deconversion and what led to it are what led to this assumption. His prejudice against non-Christians and his view of them as inferior and sub-human fueled his stress over my leaving the faith. His profound disrespect for me brought us to constant fights as he tried again and again to force me through whatever means he had at his disposal to conform to what he thought I should be.

Mary Magdalene, in a dramatic 19th-century pop...
Mary Magdalene, in a dramatic 19th-century popular image of penitence painted by Ary Scheffer. (Photo credit: Wikipedia) Not shown: actual effects in the real world.

So to the Christians in the Unequally Yoked Club, I gently suggest the following: If you must pray for your spouse, do what Jesus supposedly said and do it in private, totally in private, and pray for yourself too, to gain understanding and be a good husband or wife to your ex-Christian spouse. If you truly must pray at all–and this is by no means a given–then surely you will want to pray the way Jesus told you to pray. And you really should behave respectfully in the meanwhile. A marriage can survive a lot of things, but it cannot survive contempt and disrespect. If you’re busy doing stuff your spouse interprets as grandstanding and showboating, then you’re not playing on the same team and your spouse is very likely to be alienated further away from you.

Seek to understand your spouse. The story of that deconversion may sting and even hurt; you may not agree with the reasons for it right now. That’s okay. If the ex-Christian reveals the kind of pain I went through, then that pain is important to your spouse and it needs to be validated and shown the appropriate compassion and respect. Honor your spouse’s honesty and vulnerability in opening up to you by listening with love and openness; this is not the time to argue about those revelations but instead to show just how much you love your spouse through thick and thin.

Your spouse needs to know, more than ever, that you have his or her back. You’re the one person in the world who’s supposed to be on the same team–and if you’re not on the same team, then your spouse is alone in a way that you, for all fundagelicals’ talk of being in the world but not part of it, will never ever understand. Nobody deserves that kind of emotional pain in their own marriage.

The question really becomes: are you on your spouse’s team, or are you on your religion’s team? Because when your spouse deconverts, it may well come down to that line. How you handle the deconversion–with respect and compassion or with grandstanding and emotional manipulation–is going to speak to what team you’re really on. I don’t think that those two teams have to be two separate teams, either (the most successful mixed-faith marriages seem to reconcile those teams gracefully and manage membership on both), and that’s hopefully what you’re also going to realize in time, hopefully before it’s too late and too much damage is done.

We’re going to talk next about a piece of atrocity apologetics making the rounds: slavery apologetics. Once a popular way for dissenters to effortlessly debunk the Bible’s claims to moral superiority and inerrancy, accusations of the condoning of slavery have now backfired as more and more fundagelical Christians start applying their powerful hate machinery to this question. We’re going to look at why there’s a sudden proliferation of slavery apologetics among that crowd, what’s wrong with their arguments, and why it’s important that the rest of us stand up to their attempts to reconcile slavery with an omnimax god. See you soon.

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