The following is a guest post from Alexandra, an ex-Christian.
Neil Carter’s post today made some excellent points about the high costs of leaving your faith – how when your entire life is entwined with your beliefs: your social circles, your relationships, your marriage, and sometimes even your career itself, the cost of even allowing your mind to explore the doubts as they come up is too high to even consider.
But this part didn’t resonate with me:
Again, I must acknowledge that anyone reading this who has never lived in a highly religious environment (I’m looking at you, Europe, Canada, and the “blue states” within the U.S.) will scratch their heads and wonder what the fuss is about. But anyone from a context similar to mine will “get it” immediately. When your entire life is built around a religion, leaving it means leaving your life and starting over again from scratch.
In my experience, if you grow up deeply religious in an especially secularized culture your entire life ends up being built around a religion just as much as if you were born into a very religious culture. Why? A subculture forms.
I grew up an evangelical in France. We represented less than 1% of France’s population. Most people I met outside of church functions had never met an evangelical in their lives before me. And so when my faith came up – which it always did, because of the strong push to share the gospel with people around me, among other reasons – they were curious. I was an oddity. I stood out. My ideas were rejected – and since middle-schoolers are not the most mature crowd – I was rejected, as a person. Once I had stated my beliefs, any efforts on my part to fit in – occasionally laughing at a dirty joke, expressing interest in attending a party, uttering a swear word, wearing slightly more revealing clothing – were policed just as strongly at school, by the unbelievers, as they would have been from within my evangelical community. They made sure I followed my religious rules, or what they perceived them to be. My every choice was scrutinized, picked apart and analyzed – by non-religious people as well as by the religious people. I understand where this comes from, of course. They felt judged by the rules I was living my life by because I actually was judgmental even if I thought I wasn’t, so if I didn’t follow them to the letter, I looked like a hypocrite – whether I actually was, or whether I was having momentary doubts, or just wanted to fit in in order to be like everyone else.
So eventually, when you are ostracized, singled out, and targeted for bullying, you dive deeper into the small subculture that caused you to be rejected in the first place. They understand you. They welcome you with open arms. Sure, they also notice if you step out of line, but they do so “in love”. They do not express glee at your failings. Although they hold you up to very lofty – and I believe misguided – goals, values and standards, they at least hold themselves to the same. The secular people? Not only do they denounce your values as false and mock you for them, they also punish you socially if you dare test what life would be like if you didn’t hold to them anymore. There is no way to win as a religious minority in a secular culture.
This subculture dynamic can even appear to the believer as further “evidence” for God. It is easy for a Christian teenager to attribute the meanness of non-believers and the warmth and acceptance of believers to the action of the Holy Spirit.
Once you are deeply entrenched in the subculture, getting out can be difficult even if you try. It took me until college to meet people who had no way of knowing I was evangelical unless I told them – they didn’t know my family, my siblings, or people who knew me growing up. Once you get a reputation as a religious person, all it takes is for one person to let it out for a potential new friend to lose interest in getting to know you.
The few non-believing friends I made didn’t know I was evangelical until they were already friends with me and already cared about me as a person. How did these friendships flourish despite the differences? The commonalities between us loomed larger in their minds than the differences. I was the geeky girl. I was the bookworm. I was the girl who liked walking barefoot around campus. I played the guitar. Oh, yes, and I was also evangelical. Okay, so that’s different, but it is just one part of who I am. These friends were safe. They did not judge me if I failed to live up to evangelical standards. They were puzzled by it at times, and some asked me about it, but it wasn’t with glee.
A few years later, while I was still a Christian, I met a girl in college. I never assumed she was Muslim. She did not wear a hijab. She did not make a big deal over dietary restrictions. She never discussed religion at all. We were good friends for two years before I realized she was actually a sincere believer – and that day she found out that I was evangelical. I knew her as the girl who loved K-pop, whose favorite series was One Piece, who had three cats, who was a hard worker, and a reliable partner for group projects. And finding out she was actually a devout believer did not change my opinion of her at all. We had both ultimately started secularizing so we wouldn’t stand out and be rejected outright by the world around us. But she had grown up in much the same way I did. I do not know where she is at now where religion is concerned – but I do suspect that finding acceptance and a way to fit in in the larger secular culture prevented both of us from radicalizing in adulthood and I won’t be a bit surprised if I eventually find out she let go of her beliefs.
I believe the same mechanisms are at play for other religious minorities in the West. Why is it that so many young Muslims in the West end up more radicalized than their own parents? It may be that a similar subculture effect is in play–one that also has ethnic dimensions exacerbating it. How can we help make sure we, as secular people, don’t compound the problem? Here are my suggestions:
1) Stop focusing on the differences. They are there. They are glaring. But they are not everything that person is. Find out what you have in common – and focus on that.
2) If they deviate from what you assume are their religious rules, do not point it out to them. They know they are deviating. There might just be a reason for that. It could be that their core values are at odds with what their religion states they should value and they are trying to figure things out for themselves. It could be that they are in the process of deconverting. Or they could be hypocrites. Only time will tell.
3) Do not single them out because of their religion. Be considerate, of course. But do not bring up their religious beliefs unless they do first. If you are concerned about dietary restrictions, ask all your friends: “anything you cannot eat or would prefer not to eat?” If you’re concerned about whether they can participate in an activity at all, discreetly make alternate arrangements for any guests who may not want to – sometimes for reasons that have nothing to do with religion and that you wouldn’t even have suspected.
4) Do not treat someone differently if you suddenly find out they are religious when you weren’t aware of it before.
5) Do not assume they are so unreasonable and so different and so far gone that they will never change their minds – that is condescending. If they are willing to discuss ideas, be open to that.
To return to Neil’s post, I strongly relate to his discussion of how having all your life bound up with your faith makes it especially hard to leave it:
I cannot overstate how powerful a deterrent this is to people who already have seen enough to know better than to remain in their faith. They have enough information to critically analyze the beliefs they were taught, but they push the questions down, holding them under like trying to hold a beach ball under water. It can take a lot out of you, but it must be done or else you could lose everything—your friends, your family, your job, your marriage, your kids…you name it.
Ultimately, the secular friends I made were one of the elements in my life that made examining my doubts further possible, when I knew that if I ended up losing my faith, I would feel like I betrayed my tiny, marginalized community, I would hurt my parents deeply, and I would risk losing or not being as close to my Christian friends anymore. My church was my “village” — a community of people I knew I could turn to if I needed help moving, a community of people who were there to listen to me and help me out in rough times, a community of people who I had mostly found acceptance with, people who I had a standing “date” with every week, who I knew would always be up for going out to eat, or to see a movie. I risked a lot personally in questioning my faith, even though I was in one of the most secular cultures in the world. I remember talking on the phone to one of my best friends who was a lifelong atheist in the weeks leading up to my deconversion, telling her how much it meant to me to know that she loved me even as a Christian and that she was one of the few people in my life who I knew wouldn’t view me differently if I did indeed lose my faith.
Be that friend.
Comments are welcome here.
This was a guest post from Alexandra, an ex-Christian. Unless otherwise noted, Camels With Hammers guest posts are not subject to editing for either content or style beyond minor corrections, so guest contributors speak for themselves and not for me (Daniel Fincke). To be considered at all, posts must conform to The Camels With Hammers Civility Pledge and I must see enough intellectual merit in their opinions to choose to publish them, but no further endorsement is implied. If you would like to submit an article for consideration because you think it would be in keeping with the interests or general philosophy of this blog, please write me at camelswithhammers@ .