Terry writes me with the following quandary:
I have been reading and enjoying your blog about converting FROM Christianity, and it has really startled my viewpoints and way of thinking. You see, I am a teenager with a difficult problem that seems very similar to yours. I am set to be a Christian camp counselor in the summer, but I really struggle with ‘blind-faith’. My constant analysis of Christianity has given me mental turbulence. My father has always influenced me. He used to be an extremely devout Christian, but has since deconverted and is currently a Zen Buddhist. I constantly flip-flop between passionate love for God, and hostility. Currently, I am devoid of passion for God…but I am set to be a Christian leader! How can I honestly try to convert children and minister to others when I have such a shaky faith? I don’t feel comfortable sharing this with anyone, especially anyone else who works at the summer camp… I fear that I will lose my job and be shunned out. What should I do? I hope that I have been clear with my problem, and if not, then please ask questions so that I can clarify.
Your struggle sounds remarkably reminiscent of mine during my last summer as a Christian. What a terrible quandary I was in. It sounds like you are not yet at the place of certain disbelief as you phrased this as a matter of your passion for God waning, rather than your belief. Either that or you do disbelieve but as a Christian you are still not facing this full on, for whatever reasons. So you are conceptualizing this in terms of loss of passion.
My ultimate advice is that you eventually embrace your doubts, study philosophy, science, and history attentively, and just generally explore life and ideas outside the confines of what Christianity insists of you. I am very grateful and hopeful that you are already reading my stuff with an open mind and that you are willing to reach out to someone like me for advice.
As to your worries about alienation, it can be very difficult to lose your Christian community. A lot of ex-Christians suffer quite a bit. All I can say is that it is very much worth it for the sake of the truth, the numbers of out of the closet atheists and communities for them grow by the day, there are tremendous resources for connecting to other atheists online thanks to social media (if you friend me on Facebook, for example, I can get you friended up with dozens of atheists in no time), it is very much better that you leave the Christian community sooner rather than later in your life, and, seriously, you don’t want to spend your whole life in a community that makes you dread being honest for fear of ostracism. That’s a cult, not a place where you are going to grow intellectually, morally, or spiritually.
There are atheistic religious options (and again more are being cultivated) if you fear you will miss various experiential aspects of being part of a church. You can attend a Universalist church that will not judge you for your doubts. You can explore various forms of Buddhism rationalistically (as your dad might be doing). And there are ethical culture societies and other Humanist groups you might be in touch with.
But, as to the summer, I understand if you feel like you cannot leave your faith and back out of being a camp counselor immediately. I understand your anxieties of dealing with the summer. I have been there in such an eerily similar position. An untold number of deconverting Christians have been in positions of leadership struggling immensely with this conflict.
Here is my advice for them. When I deconverted, I didn’t feel good about much of any of my work spreading Christianity. It made me feel like not only was my life spent not promoting the genuine good but it was spent promoting the opposite of what was really good. It made me feel really empty of meaningful accomplishments up to that point in my life. Now this wasn’t entirely true. There is tangible non-cognitive good you can do even when you are ostensibly promoting false beliefs. You can provide emotional support, teach people some things which are true, help people exercise their minds, role model virtues for people in any number of ways, etc., even while what you’re saying is technically quite false, morally dubious, and overall counterproductive to getting life right. So, you can focus on what good there is even amidst the falsehood if you come down on the side that your current beliefs have been a sham.
So, what’s my advice about being a camp counselor while suffering from these doubts? If you feel like you must do it because there is no time to back out and you are not yet ready emotionally to deal with the consequences of having many people you love backlash against you for your disbelief, then at least straighten out in your mind what is most core to what you believe about values. What are the most important value priorities? What values do you know in your guts will remain most important to you whether you believe in God or not? What values are so important that they transcend religious affiliations and belief structures in general? When you meet people of different faiths or no faith, what kinds of attitudes about how to treat others and how to make a just world are most important to you for finding common ground with them despite your differences? What values, if we all truly lived by them, would make the most people thrive to their maximum and be their happiest, independent of whether or not their beliefs were right?
Whatever those values are, teach them this summer. Teach them to others and to yourself. Meditate on them, study how they can be implemented the best possible, internalize them deep into your guts. Study them and teach them to others, whether you are a camp counselor or not. Study them, constantly reexamine them critically to make sure they are correct, and for as long as they prove to be good and for as long as you improve upon your understanding of them, teach them with your whole life.
You never have to corner a kid and pressure her into believing. When I was a camp counselor, I was in my very early 20s and my campers were in their teens. I had to do “one on ones” with them. While others used those to try to wring conversions out of the kids however possible, I usually used them just to counsel the kids about whatever their problems were. When I had a Hindu camper, I didn’t try to convert him, I just did comparative religion with him. Sat down and listened to him about what his faith was all about and told him what Christianity was all about, and together we figured out what we had in common and where the core abstract philosophical differences between the two faiths really lay.
There are any number of ways you can have meaningful positive, open ended discussions about genuine values problems even if you are constrained to wrapping it up in Christian myths and metaphors and language. You can at least commit to speaking truths–if not the literal truth for the time being.
Even were you in the position of being asked to give an altar call and tell people explicitly to come up and commit themselves to Jesus (which kind of makes me feel dirty to give my blessing to you to do!), there are ways to frame what coming to Jesus is about. Why not give a speech about how following Jesus is going to mean really not judging others as he says not to judge or really caring about the poor as he insists over and over. Tell people not to come up and commit if they are not going to live up to that but be like so many legalistic Pharisees in the church. You can find Jesus’s own words and lean on them and no Christian will be able to interrupt your altar call to complain. But, hopefully, being only a teenager, you won’t be asked to give altar calls. And really you should avoid accepting any assignments that involve that kind of thing. You can bow out of them with a bit of literal honesty about not feeling spiritually right about it, even if you can’t explain why. People may not understand but may honor that honesty.
So, my advice is figure out what you really think the truths about values are that you feel so comfortable promulgating that you will not regret having inculcated or reinforced them in people even should your beliefs change. And only really talk about those values, regardless of what your outward Christian formulations are. Be as truthful as you can in that sense for as long as you are committed to Christian employment. But then as soon as you can get away from responsibilities to that Christian camp, go work out what you think in private without teaching anyone.
Don’t live a lie. There is no need to, long term. You may have other complications in the meantime. Your dad sounds likely hospitable to your leaving the faith. I don’t know about your mom. I don’t know about your town. But in time you should have recourse to at least stop going to church if not openly declaring yourself a non-believer, assuming that’s where you wind up. And if that’s the case, there are many atheists out there to connect with. You won’t have to be alone.
Above is the long overdue debut of my Friday’s Philosophical Advice column, promised well over a year ago. I am an American Philosophical Practitioners Association certified philosophical practitioner and I have a PhD in Philosophy from Fordham University.
As a philosophical practitioner I help people reason through their beliefs, values, priorities, identities, emotions, ethical dilemmas, life decisions, existential quandaries, religious or post-religious struggles, love relationships, interpersonal conflicts, search for meaning and purpose, or struggles in any other areas of life that some conceptual clarification, logical consistency, theoretical sensitivity, and emotional intelligence can be helpful. I do not treat mental illness. I simply help people reason more clearly, consistently, ethically, and proactively about their lives. Send your questions to camelswithhammers at gmail dot com with the subject heading “Philosophical Advice”. The identities of all inquiring for advice are kept confidential and published e-mails will always use pseudonyms instead of real names.
If you are interested in counseling sessions write me with the subject heading “Philosophical Practice”. All sessions are confidential. And it does not matter where you are in the world; philosophical practitioners are not bound by state certification requirements and restrictions, so you and I can meet online.
To keep up with all installments in the “Philosophical Advice” Series keep tabs on this page.