There’s been a fascinating discussion going on lately regarding whether or not a non-Christian would or should or could do various Christian things with a still-believing loved one. I wanted to share my thoughts on the topic. I don’t say “this is what everyone should do.” That’d be wrong. But I do want to offer some reasons why someone might choose to refuse such requests from Christians.
Here’s why someone might say no to Christian loved ones’ invitations to do religious stuff with them.
1. You might feel your boundaries are being trampled.
When Christians are taught that in a marriage, “two become one”–which means that there is, ideally, no boundary between spouses at all–that opens the door for a lot of abuse. One common metaphor I heard back when I was Christian was that people crossed over the line in the sand between them so often that the line became obliterated. Many Christians see nothing wrong with this idea at all. Even friends tend not to respect boundaries between each other; as I’ve mentioned, I once had a terrifying “intervention” in the back seat of a car surrounded by screaming-their-fool-heads-off “friends” from three different denominations because I’d sounded dangerously pro-choice recently.
So when someone says “I expect you to respect that I do not want to be asked to do religious things anymore,” that person is moving against every single thing Christians get taught–and telling the other person to do the same.
Acquiescence, in this situation, would mean teaching the believing loved one to continue to stomp on the boundaries we’ve set. Giving in even once would tell the Christian that if our boundaries are trampled enough or correctly, then eventually s/he will achieve the goal. If the Christian is one of those people who constantly push against limits, like a lot of folks I knew in the religion, then the lines must be set firmly, consistently, and completely. If we can’t do that, then we’ll get flattened.
2. You might feel that your Christian loved one is trying to re-assert dominance over you.
Every single aspect of religious faith, especially for the sorts of extremist Christians who would make unwelcome requests of their ex-Christian loved ones, involves someone owning or being in control of someone else. Back when I was Christian, our conceptualization of society was like an umbrella in a lot of ways: pastors were under “God”‘s authority; men were under the pastor and “God”‘s authority; women were under men, then their pastor, then “God;” children were under everyone; the planet itself and everything in it was under humanity generally. Authority–who owned, who bossed, who controlled, who had the veto and the final word–was the most important aspect of any relationship.
Egalitarian relationships of any kind get seen as suspicious in the extreme. My denomination as a whole considered feminism–which was nothing less than the total disruption of what we saw as the natural order between men and women–to be the ultimate expression of society’s rejection of Christianity.* And thus someone’s obedience might be tied up in a Christian’s self-respect, conceptualization of how relationships work, or feelings of dominance–and even more if that ex-Christian is female.
When threats get involved, we might bristle even more about giving in to that kind of bullying.
Someone might well choose, in such situations, not to validate such shows of attempted dominance.
3. You might feel that you’re being gaslighted.
Gaslighting is a nasty silencing tactic used by the most toxic of Christians. It’s an incredibly abusive thing to do to victims; it makes them start questioning their own handle on reality and doubt their own judgment–and encourages them in turn to start accepting the abuser’s version of events and perceptions of reality over their own.
The Christians gaslighting us might well be doing it out of what they think are benevolent impulses. To many of them, church is a joy and a pleasure to attend; Jesus is real; miracles happen; the Holy Spirit really takes control of people’s mouths on occasion; the end of the world is nigh and they have diagrams. They might not be able to comprehend any other way of viewing these subjects. If both people were initially Christian or have been Christian together for a long time, they especially might not understand why we’re turning our backs on something we agreed was real for so long.
We might be very open about how we feel about church now, or how we feel about the activities our still-Christian spouses request we perform with them. My own Christian husband knew quite well how repelled I was by the whole charade and how much I detested the florid shows of religiosity he thought would convince the god of the whole universe to strong-arm me back to belief–and how I thought all of it was so obviously made-up that it was insulting to even consider the idea of play-acting and pretending again. Like a lot of y’all have experienced, we simply had two completely different versions of reality that conflicted with each other. Needless to say, any version of reality that views Christianity as objectively untrue is simply wrong, as far as most Christians are concerned.
It’s a good idea to learn what gaslighting is so you can be aware of anything like that happening to you. Especially watch out for Christians using words like “mad,” “insane,” “crazy,” “possessed,” and the like–or insisting that we’re completely wrong about what we’ve directly experienced and discovered to be true, or making wild accusations about how we supposedly feel.
4. A Christian might be trying to recreate a onetime Happy Christian Marriage/Family/Friendship Illusion–whether the ex-Christian wants to come along for the ride or not.
Many Christians sign up for a particular version of marriage on their wedding day. I sure did. And many of them will try to recreate in their own little family the rules and setup they have been taught by their various churches. Like my husband and I did, they present a facade to the world of being happy, harmonious, conflict-free, industrious, self-sacrificing, selfless, compassionate, and complementary. Many Christian families work on similar principles, and many Christian friendships do as well. There are a lot of illusions operating in the religion.
When one person awakens to the reality of how false one of those illusions is, but the other person hasn’t, then obviously there’ll be conflicts.
We may feel that our Christian loved ones are asking us, in so many words, Let things go back to the way they were just for one day. Let me pretend that we have that kind of relationship still for just a little while.
If there’s been religion-based abuse, then the situation becomes even more stark for people in mixed-belief relationships. When such Christians ask us to go to church or to pray with them, what we may well hear is this:
I care more about that illusion than I do about you. I care more about my gauzy and erroneous version of reality than about your lived experiences. I care more about floating in a sea of pretenses than I do about building a real relationship with you. I care more about my comfort than I do about your pain. I want a relationship on my terms, not one that works for us both on our shared terms. I will ignore your reality, your experiences, your truth, and your pain as long as it means I can be comfortable again.
If we give in, then we might feel that we’re telling our Christian loved ones that their comfort matters more to us both than our own pain does.
And I know from bitter experience that we’ll be heard loud and clear that time.
5. The conflict might not even be about any fears the Christian has about our eternal fate.
This might sound a little weird, but I never got the impression that my then-husband was really that worried about me going to Hell–it was always about his reputation and credibility with the church crowd, and his status as the comfortably dominant half of our marriage. If he saw the problem in supernatural terms at all, it was about a spiritual war–with him as the heroic David fighting demonic Goliath for the soul of his driven-mad wife. But I didn’t perceive at the time that he was especially worried about me personally. I’m not even sure he was capable of worrying about someone else in those terms. There are a lot of narcissists in extremist Christianity. I’ve run into lots of folks with eerily similar stories, too, and lots of Christians who seem way more interested in dominance than they are about people’s so-called “souls,” so I know my situation isn’t unique.
Do what you can to separate out any such fears from the nuts-and-bolts of how your relationship needs to change for you both to be content.
What I conclude now, looking at all these factors:
A lot of Christians are perfectly chill with a deconversion. It’s maybe not the awesomest thing that ever happened, but it’s something they can roll with. But they’re not the people I’m talking about here. I’m talking about the kind of Christians who can’t just let a deconversion happen–they’ve got to set themselves up on the side of TRUE CHRISTIANITY™ and conduct SPIRITUAL WARFARE™ for their ex-Christian loved one’s very soul. Those are the Christians who tend to make repeated requests–and to gaslight us, bully us, and make requests that are loaded with implied punishments for noncompliance.
I couldn’t articulate this at the time of my own deconversion, but what I wanted in my own marriage was for us to be both on the same side: OUR SIDE. Together. Us against the world. Not him-on-Christianity’s-side, me-on-apostasy’s-side. Christianity teaches its adherents to view the world and themselves in that way, which means that if apostates in that situation give a single inch it’d mean aligning themselves with the sides our Christian loved ones have set up–and our Christian loved ones can’t give a single inch for the same exact reason. But the harder they push on us, the harder we’re going to push back and the more frayed the relationship will get.
A lot of folks are going to say “Cas, Christians like your ex-husband are just abusive and using extremist religion as their method of controlling and abusing others.” And I’d agree wholeheartedly. Not every Christian asking us to do Christian stuff with them is going to be asking out of the purest, kindest motivations. Some of them will be making these requests because it’s part of an overall campaign to control, abuse, or dominate us. But we have to take that reality into account when we make our decisions or we’re potentially opening ourselves up to further abuse.
Compare and Contrast.
Not all contexts are the same.
Last night a friend of mine asked for prayers on social media because her child had been seriously hurt in an accident. I didn’t answer with a prayer, but I did express my horror at the situation and my fervent hope that her child would be okay. She never noticed and probably never will. What she was needing right then was to know that people knew what was happening and that she and her child were safely ensconced in our thoughts. She’s been taught to gain that affirmation by asking for prayers, is all. People like that don’t tend to make direct requests, so it’s easy to sidestep. I’m not offended at all. (Thanks to doctors, the boy is doing fine now.)
I’ve always gone to Mass and Vigil with my aunt the nun when I visit her. There was a time when it wouldn’t even have occurred to me not to. I see a lot of the same elements in my relationship with my mother-in-law, who is a lovely lady and a fervent lifelong Christian; it’s never bothered me to attend church with her–and sometimes my husband and I do, sometimes we don’t.
Their churches don’t bother me at all; nobody expects me to do anything or be anything; and most importantly, my loved ones aren’t clinging to an illusion or smugly asserting dominance over me. I’m free to decide how I’ll proceed. I think it’d completely baffle them to imagine doing church any other way–and heartily annoy them to imagine me doing something I really didn’t want to do just to make them happy.
If I were to decide not to participate in their devotions, my loved ones wouldn’t interpret it as an attack on their beliefs or a slam on their love for me. They don’t use my compliance as a weapon. They respect my autonomy. They don’t exult in my participation as some kind of “win” in the War for Captain Cassidy’s Soul, nor my refusal to participate as a declaration of war. None of us actually had any kind of Happy Christian facade we were maintaining that absolutely hinged on my compliance and cooperation, so I’m not breaking a facade by declining.
Most of all, I feel like those Christian family members of mine love me for myself, not for what I represent in the movie that is their lives. They’d absolutely hate to think I was going to church with them because I felt I had to do so, or that I was ever miserable in their company.
That’s not what family’s about.
That’s not what love is about.
Here’s the upshot.
Ideally, I want Christians to seriously think about why they make these requests of their ex-Christian loved ones–and what message they are sending when they make repeated requests (or requests loaded with threats like “you’ll lose this marriage/friendship if you don’t,” or “you’ll lose your family’s love if you don’t”).
And I want ex-Christians to have some more food for thought about what they want to do in situations like the ones I present here.
Obviously, I’m not saying that everyone should always refuse to share religious observances–any more than anyone would ever say that everyone should always participate.
I’m saying, rather, that every relationship is a little bit different. Maybe in yours, the Christian making the request is respectful, loving, and kind–and the request isn’t being made for some seriously ulterior motive. Some ex-Christians do share devotions with their still-Christian loved ones for their own reasons. Sometimes it’s purely voluntary; sometimes it’s a calculated loss to maintain the peace. Only the person involved can decide what’s best to do in his or her own situation. Sometimes there’s not a perfect answer; sometimes all we get is the “least bad” answer–one that hopefully answers both needs to some extent without seriously damaging either person or the relationship itself.
There are going to be more and more and more of these situations cropping up as Christianity continues to hemorrhage adherents and more existing Christians figure out that happy relationships are more than possible with non-Christians. If you, reading, haven’t been put into a situation like this already, hang in there because your time is doubtless coming. It’s not a bad idea to think about how you’d respond.
This might be the one life you will ever get. Don’t waste it, is all I’m saying.
Find the best, least-bad answer you can for when the question comes up.
* Indeed, even nowadays it isn’t at all uncommon for a Christian to snarl at me, “Your husband must be so miserable!” like they’re hurling the zingiest of all possible zingers. I could easily tell them how night-and-day happier my partners and I have both been in egalitarian versus fundagelical-style relationships, but the people flinging those accusations would never believe me anyway.