We often find it challenging, in today’s society, to know exactly how to respond respectfully when we find out someone’s going through a life transition like a divorce.
Our response reveals a lot about how much we truly respect the person sharing this news and how capable we are of compassion and empathy.
Sometimes it can be really hard for those hearing about such a transition event to know exactly what to say about it at first. If you hear about a friend’s divorce, you don’t immediately jump in the air and yell “Yippee! Who wants cake?” It’s a major life event and many divorcees would appreciate some decorum. That said, nowadays not all divorces are lamentable or sad. Some can be really one-sided and some involve abuse or other unpleasantness. Even when the breakup is perfectly friendly and the best thing possible to have done, the partners who are separating can feel profoundly ambivalent about this ending. And then some folks actually do want cake.
So we play it safe with a preliminary expression of friendly sympathy. Chances are when we respond with a brief, tentative “Oh, I’m very sorry to hear that,” we’ll be told exactly how our friend feels about this particular parting-of-ways–and now that we know this important information, we can adjust our social course as necessary. We might be told, “It’s all good; it wasn’t a good marriage and I’m doing a lot better now!” or “Thank you, it’s been really hard on me and I’m seriously hurting.” We carefully gauge our responses by how our friend responds to that first sympathetic expression of care. Once we discover how our friend needs us to help, we can delve more deeply into congratulations or sorrow as needed. And generally we want to do whatever we can to help such a friend. We want to be loving. We just don’t always know exactly what would be the most loving thing to say in awkward situations.
Our culture has etiquette in place–as rough as it is sometimes–to handle these revelations. Mostly it involves erring on the side of sympathy at first until we know better. A big part of why we have this etiquette is because we, as a culture, recognize that some divorces are a lot more painful than others and that a lot of folks are happy about getting out of a bad marriage. Most of us recognize that sometimes a divorce is necessary and if we’re being honest, we’re thankful that this escape clause exists so people trapped in bad marriages can escape them.
This etiquette couldn’t exist without our society having some sort of collective recognition that not all divorces are traumatic and heartbreaking, just as we recognize that some marriages really are best handled with a divorce. We know that sometimes a situation doesn’t match the fairy-tale vision our culture has of it.
If someone keeps harping on and on how truly sad it was that a particular marriage ended and keeps trying to find some way to reconcile spouses when one or both of them simply don’t want a reconciliation to occur, we correctly consider that rather rude and unwelcome behavior. And some people do indeed act that way. Most folks who get a divorce have at least a few run-ins like that and it’s always unpleasant and weird. I sure did when I broke up with my then-husband Biff.
I suspect we’re still coming to a similar realization about Christianity in my culture. It’s a nice religion for some folks and serves them well.
But it’s not nice for everybody.
Some people leave Christianity and they’re really upset at first; some are overjoyed from the moment they realize its claims aren’t true. But when Christians find out, typically they react like someone’s died.
Most ex-Christians know very well what it looks like, that expression of pious sympathy that comes immediately to a Christian’s face when told about our deconversions: that knitting of the brow, those pursed lips, the soft hushed voice of consolation. Sometimes the Christian even cries. We get emails from family members about how they mourn and grieve over our deconversions, about how sad and worried they are.
I’ve met a number of people who were sad about their divorces, even years later. But I can’t remember running across any ex-Christians who remained upset like that years after the fact or who regretted figuring things out even though disentangling produced some difficult feelings and logistical problems. There might be some stuff we miss or some negative emotions to work on, but overall we eventually come out of it on the positive side. And quite a few of us have some pretty awful experiences to deal with.
So it can sound downright surreal to us to hear someone express sorrow over our deconversions or try to “reconcile” us with Christianity.
Sometimes I have to wonder if they realize that what they’re trying to reconcile me with was really, genuinely hurtful to me. I wonder if they realize they’re saying they’re sorry that I got out of something that was that horrifically painful and unjust for me as a person. Do they know they’re telling me, in so many words, that they wish I’d scamper back into a faith system that gave me PTSD and turned me into a wreck and a hull of a person?
Of course, what they mean is that they want me to get back into a form of the religion that they happen to think is better–which is to say, their own way of practicing it, which they know is perfect since, well, they happen to practice it that way. It’s not that they wish me harm; they are just convinced I did something wrong. They either imply or flat-out tell me that if I’d only practiced Christianity the correct way, their way, I wouldn’t have had so many problems–which is another thing I heard after breaking up with my ex-husband Biff. I don’t think such Christians realize exactly how repellent I find the entire religion–just as my old friends way back when didn’t know how repellent I found Biff. All the way to the end of that whole situation with him, when I basically cut off communication with anybody who kept trying to “reconcile” us or couldn’t understand why I might be reticent about the idea, there were people who simply didn’t understand why I was divorcing him. Hadn’t I loved him once? Wasn’t that worth any struggle to maintain? Wasn’t there something, anything, that could make that marriage work again?
Sometimes people try everything they reasonably can, and nothing works because the situation just isn’t salvageable.
It’s hard for such Christians to understand that I’ve probably already tried exactly what they think would do the trick. At the very least, I heard about it later, considered it, and discarded it. I reckon I’ve seen pretty much every permutation of Christianity imaginable by now–even the ones whose practitioners think are new or different (pro-tip: they’re totally not). I don’t think Christianity, at its heart, is something that I can maintain a relationship with. At its heart, its core principles are not principles that I find acceptable or workable for my life and outlook, nor is its overall culture one that I think is healthy for me. No matter how hard I stress those “for me”s though, Christians take this kind of declaration as a personal insult and affront–if they hear me at all.
Certainly I can see how hard it is for Christians to recognize just how repellent many non-believers and ex-believers find their religion, its precepts, its culture, and its practices. If they vaguely seem to understand, then the disapproval or pushback gets seen as a sign of divine approval and favor. It reminds me of those delusional folks who assume that anybody who criticizes them is “just jealous” of them. When a Christian really comes face-to-face with the fact that someone finds the religion to be genuinely morally distasteful and abhorrent, it can be confusing and hurtful–and the urge rises to try to convince that outsider that no, really, it’s wonderful and amazing and perfect and fun and cool and awesome to be a Christian. Those who attempt this damage control don’t realize that every word they say comes off like how my old friends tried to convince me that Biff “really wants to change.” It just makes their religion look even worse–but they can’t stop themselves.
I don’t think these Christians understand that they’re talking to people who thought just like they did once. Most of us ex-Christians lived that same reality once. We, too, struggled with that urge to try to fix and amend an outsider’s negative perception of our religion. We might even have used the same words. There’s a certain element of groupthink there. We know the talking points; we know the canned responses. We know how it’s supposed to work and what it’s supposed to look like.
And we know how it all still goes pear-shaped because reality rarely lines up with those talking points.
Christianity’s claims aren’t true, which saves me the entire trouble of working out whether or not some form of it would be the magical perfect way of practicing it that wouldn’t produce the same exact results I experienced over half a lifetime of practicing various flavors of it. Going back to Christianity would be like going back to an abuser. It’s not going to happen, and I wish Christians would respect me enough to stop trying to make it happen. I’ve put in my time and don’t feel the slightest bit compelled to put in more.
And it’d be nice if Christians would recognize that whatever they may personally feel about their religion–and certainly they are allowed to feel however they wish about it–it doesn’t work for everyone the way it does for them. Nobody’s blaming them personally for Christianity’s failings, and nobody needs them to be Magic Christians and fix everything with a well-placed talking point.
I wish Christians could be compassionate and sensitive friends instead of salespeople.
I remember having to be “on” all the time around other people, as if I was selling soap in some multi-level marketing scam. I couldn’t let up for even a moment. I was a salesperson, Jesus was my product, and I couldn’t let anybody see my struggles and doubts for one second or I might become the cause of someone’s damnation! I couldn’t even go out to eat or hold a normal conversation without figuring out how to get my sales pitch into play. I see a great many Christians like that now–folks who seem incapable of showing any humanity or expressing any sentiment that goes against the party line. I know why they can’t, but I don’t find it particularly loving or respectful.
What I really want out of Christians who learn I’ve deconverted is the same thing I want out of people who find out about my other life transitions: empathy, compassion, respect, a sense of humor, a renewed declaration of friendship or family, and a desire to interact with me on my terms instead of theirs.
But I very seldom got any of that back when I needed it most, and I very seldom get it now.
Culturally, we’re going to need to come to a realization that a deconversion is a life transition that, like divorce, isn’t always a bad thing or a negative thing for the person going through it. There’s not one canned way to go through a deconversion, and there sure isn’t one single way to respond to it.
Sometimes the person who deconverted wants sympathy and compassion, maybe just a little goddamned recognition of the pain and hurt that was experienced, maybe a shared smile or touch or hug after what might have been a difficult time. We want to know that our friends still love us, that we still have common ground, that we will always be welcome with those who still remain in the fold.
And sometimes, yes: we want some goddamned metaphorical cake.