Holiday season is upon us, and that means many of my fellow deconverts will once again be facing their families for the annual “Come to Jesus” speeches, the subtle and not-so-subtle attempts at evangelism, and in general the myriad forms of manipulation that have kept them at a fair distance for all the other months of the year up until this point.
All families have their passive-aggressive moments, of course, and the awkward dance around contentious topics at the dinner table has become proverbial. But there’s an added layer of stress that can be emotionally crippling for people who no longer subscribe to their family’s religion. Speaking for the tradition that I know best, I can confirm that leaving the Christian faith paints a gigantic target on your back, inviting an awful lot of “love” that somehow feels more like a curse than a blessing.
In short, Christianity has a boundary problem. It has a major problem respecting and maintaining personal boundaries.
When Control Masquerades as Benevolence
What do I mean by boundaries? Boundaries are those personal limitations and lines of demarcation which tell someone else where his business ends and where the next person’s begins, and vice versa. In normal, healthy, adult relationships each person has responsibility for himself or herself and others should not infringe upon that responsibility because doing so is an encroachment of personal space. Think of them as the emotional equivalent of the proverbial good fences that make good neighbors.
When personal boundaries are violated, the recipient of this treatment feels demeaned, depersonalized, and devalued. It’s as if someone else has said, “I have such a low estimation of your ability to make good decisions that I have simply decided to make them for you. Now bend over and take your medicine.” You aren’t really given a choice in the matter. Someone else has taken that right from you by presuming to tell you what to do and how to think. Your own opinion and concerns do not matter. What they want and think is more important than what you want and think, and if you don’t like that then the problem is with you, so shut up.
Sounds terrible, right? That sounds like abusive, uncaring treatment, doesn’t it?
Well, Christianity teaches you to do precisely that—particularly fundamentalist and evangelical Christianity, although I wouldn’t limit this criticism to those strains alone. Most versions of Christianity show little to no respect for personal or relational boundaries. Keep in mind, these are belief systems that say you are so very bad that you deserve to be punished forever, and in order to make amends for that, Jesus had to be tortured and killed for it instead of you. That’s how despicable you are. I was taught that entire nations have been destroyed just to provide an object lesson in what God will do to those who don’t get right with him.
I know, right? That’s awful. And yes, I know there are other versions of this religion which have discarded the penal substitutionary view of the atonement (because who cares how the Bible actually interprets itself, right?), but even those kinder gentler versions can’t seem to shake the dogmatic belief that people are fundamentally broken. If we weren’t fundamentally messed up, then why would we need saving in the first place? And saved from what…ourselves?
The brilliance of modern Christianity lies in its ability to sugar coat this message, reframing it in entirely positive sounding terms. “We want you to have the best life possible! We’re offering you a priceless gift! If you turn it down you’ll be missing out!” That’s good marketing, honestly, and it sells well. People and institutions have made millions from it. But underneath the saccharine, smiley surface lies a profoundly disturbing message: You are so incomplete and insufficient as a human being that you will never be okay without what we have to offer you. Happiness and fulfillment are impossible apart from what we are trying to sell you. You must have this or your life will have been wasted.
The best salesmen are the ones who have convinced even themselves that what they’re selling is worth every penny. They are the most persuasive, because they’re completely sincere. It’s no different with evangelism. When Christians push their message onto the rest of the world, it’s usually because they genuinely believe the stuff they’re saying (or perhaps more precisely they want to). But in so doing, they are failing miserably at recognizing and respecting personal boundaries. I’d like to give you some examples of how many different ways they do that, many of them pulled from my own life.
A Personal Example From My Own Life
I could fill a book with the many ways my own personal boundaries have been trodden under foot by Christian friends and family. Bless their hearts, I know they mean well, but some of them are truly awful at grasping the concept of personal boundaries. I first noticed this the moment I began to openly express my doubts about my faith, although in retrospect I see that boundaries were never really well-maintained even long before. I just never noticed before because I was used to it. That’s the only reason the people who live in that world aren’t constantly being offended by all of this. They’re so accustomed to it all that it seems normal to them.
When I first began telling friends and family that I no longer believed in God, their initial response was to tell me I was deluded. I couldn’t possibly not believe in God, so I was either lying to them or else I was lying to myself. They felt entitled to tell me what I believe, and if I say I think differently then I’m just wrong about that. I’ve been having this discussion with them for years now and some of them still cannot accept that I seriously don’t believe anymore. Surely I must be sick in the head, or I’m just being rebellious, or I’m lying for personal gain.
At one point my own wife, fearful for what this change of belief would do to me and to our family, scripted out for me which friends I could tell about this and which ones I couldn’t. I visited with the friends she told me to see and they grilled me about all kinds of personal matters. Did I look at porn? How often did I masturbate? Did I struggle with lust? I wanted to tell them it’s only a struggle if you resist, but somehow I figured that would only make matters worse. One of them recommended I install software on my computer that would alert them anytime I logged onto porn. Evidently they each have “accountability partners” with whom they share every failing in that matter. What a weird, obsessive subculture!
Feeling very alone in my non-belief, I tried to find a way to meet new people who felt the same way I did, but I was told in no uncertain terms that this was an unacceptable course of action. When I finally met up with the local group of atheists I had met through Facebook, that outing precipitated the hasty ending of nearly a year of marital therapy. We had reached an impasse. I could either continue to make atheist friends or else hold my marriage together, but not both. It would be less than three days from that gathering that my wife and I decided we had no viable path forward as a couple.
Was this a healthy way to work through our differences? Certainly not, but that’s just the problem…from our Christian background, it was. She was only doing things the way we were taught to do them. Personal boundaries are meaningless in the evangelical Christian mindset, so from that perspective she was entitled to tell me with whom I could and couldn’t form meaningful relationships. This is why many evangelical Christian wedding ceremonies feature a unity candle moment in which they use two different candles to light a third and then blow out the other two candles, signifying the elimination of any independent identity for each member of the couple. What a perfect picture of what I’m trying to say is wrong with the Christian disregard for personal boundaries!
But this story just tells you about my own little subculture. I’m aware that my experience won’t seem normal to everyone. Southern Baptists live in their own little epistemic closure, I know. But groups like mine stand out mainly because we more consistently apply the principles that are inherent in most other streams of the Christian faith, it’s just that those other groups aren’t as fanatical about it. There’s a saying of unknown origin that’s made the rounds in skeptic circles that states this principle perfectly:
If you don’t like your religion’s fundamentalists, maybe there’s something wrong with your religion’s fundamentals.
So what sorts of other things does the Christian faith lead people to do which demonstrate a lack of respect for personal boundaries?
The World’s Designated Adults
The most obvious and blatant examples of disregard for personal boundaries can be seen in the evangelical mania over things like marriage equality and public prayer at football games and other civic gatherings. For some reason they became obsessed with outlawing same-sex relationships and I am still not entirely sure why that among all things has become so important. It’s seems a little odd to me now. So does making public (Christian only) prayers a major fight, particularly in honor of a man who explicitly instructed his people to say their prayers in private and not make a show of it.
Jesus said his kingdom was “not of this world,” but clearly some evangelicals are not satisfied with that. They won’t rest until their rules are everybody’s rules and government enforces every moral obsession they have onto everyone else whether they approve or not. In a country like mine built around religious pluralism, this hegemonic imperialism sticks out like a turd in a punch bowl, and it stinks like one, too. It demonstrates an utter disregard for other people’s wishes, and it presumes to dictate for everyone else what they should and shouldn’t do. As Captain Cassidy says, it’s as if they see themselves as the world’s Designated Adults and they’re going to run things whether the rest of us want them to or not.
Evangelism itself, usually unsolicited, is also a boundary problem. I live half my life in Mississippi and the other half on the internet, and both places are full of presumptuous evangelists. In both spheres in which I live, people push their beliefs into my face and feel they are doing me a huge favor, never bothering to ask if I want the conversation in the first place. They rarely acknowledge that I’m already familiar with the assertions they’re making, nor would they care if they found out that I am. They feel entitled by their calling as Christians to bombard me with their message whether I want to hear it—again—or not. Because this is so deeply woven into the fabric of their self-image, they cannot see how rampantly this runs over my personal boundaries, and they cannot be made to feel they have done anything inappropriate.
Thankfully I seem to have convinced most of the adults in my family to lay this burden down, at least while I’m around in person. Now I just need to start convincing my children.
An Unacceptable Double Standard
Last year I had a student in one of my classes who came up to me while I was grading papers and stood over me and said, “I know why I’m taking this class this year.” I looked up at her and responded that it probably had something to do with her needing credit for Geometry but she disagreed and said that God put her in my class. I asked what for and she said, “To save you.” I asked from what, and in a very patronizing tone she said “Yourself.” I very politely explained to her that her comments were rude and presumptuous, and that I would be upset if I learned my own children were speaking to their teacher in that kind of condescending parental tone. But do you see what I mean? She was one of the good students. She was not one of my students who misbehaved in class. In most areas she behaved appropriately but when it came to recognizing personal boundaries she could not even see them because her religion blinds her to them. Even explaining them makes no difference because they do not recognize them.
I have friends who are atheists and are reluctant to leave their children alone with their grandparents because they cannot resist trying to proselytize and indoctrinate them every time they come over to stay with them. In all other matters their behavior is respectful, but when it comes to their religion, they simply don’t care if the parents of these children want them to be subjected to preaching or not. They feel emboldened by a call that supersedes everyone else’s wishes, so they’re going to do it no matter how many times they’re asked not to. And it won’t stop when the kids are grown, either. I know this for a fact because many of us are grown children of Christians and they are still telling us what we can and cannot do in our own lives. A friend tells this story:
I’m temporarily living with my mom, and she will play Christian music when I am there or even leave it on when she leaves the house and she knows I’ll be coming home. I’m sure she thinks she is doing something good and that the Holy Spirit might minister to me and I’ll break down into tears and repent of my wicked, sinful ways. But the reality is that it makes me feel uncomfortable and unwelcome and like I’m not good enough for her as I am. She needs to change me, or needs Jesus to change me.
I could never, ever, EVER imagine listening to secular podcasts or music that goes against religion, in front of my mom, because it would be rude, and it would upset her. I respect my mom and her beliefs, so I’m not going to force mine on her, even “subtly.” So why is it okay that she does it to me? Because she is a Christian, and they so often believe that by doing stuff like this, they are doing a greater good. She is being a “good, loving Christian” by forcing her religion on me. But if the tables were turned? If I played secular or anti-religious stuff around her? She would not be happy at all.
The double standard is galling and they cannot be made to care about it. But we can’t go on living like this without ever saying a word about it. If we do then resentment just builds up and eventually we blow our stack and then for the life of them they can’t understand why. So what can be done about this?
Set Your Boundaries and Stick to Them
All I know to do about it is to finally speak up. Say something about how you feel that your personal boundaries are being violated and then insist on them acknowledging and respecting them. It takes work and it requires having uncomfortable conversations. You may have to teach them the very concept of boundaries from scratch because their faith has rendered the concept so meaningless. It’s an awkward position to be in but it’s only fair.
Like my friend, you may have been respecting their boundaries all along and you know exactly what it feels like to stop yourself from presuming upon someone else. Now it’s time they have a turn at doing what you’ve been doing for so long. Speak up and say something about how this makes you feel. They may have never once in their lives considered it.
This past weekend a friend told me that this holiday week she would likely have to tell her mother, at long last, that she no longer believes. She has tried to keep it a secret for some time, but her mother keeps pushing to get her grandchild to make a profession of faith whether her mother wishes it or not. It upsets my friend to see her daughter being indoctrinated without her consent, and she may finally have to speak up about it. She fully anticipates histrionics from her mother, who has already flown off the handle once before when she discovered her daughter supported marriage equality. This will be significantly worse, because now people’s eternal destinies will hang in the balance. What should she do?
I told her that in the event that another confrontation happens and a shouting/crying fit ensues, she may have to spell out for her own mother what kind of treatment is acceptable to her. She will have to lay down her own boundaries in specific terms, and then it will fall to her to enforce those boundaries in order to preserve their relationship. If worse comes to worse, a holiday trip may have to be cut short in order to drive home the point that important relationships deserve to be cared for by respecting the boundaries that others put in place.
Nobody but my friend can dictate where her own boundaries should be, and if her mother cannot wrap her head around the concept of personal agency and self-ownership, some distance may have to be created and maintained in order to get that point across. In time, people usually come around, realizing that a relationship with their children and grandchildren is worth putting up with an occasional accommodation to a grown child’s wishes for herself and for her own children. I have seen this put into action myself and I can attest that it’s a necessary and helpful skill to develop.
What about you? Have you had some success in communicating and maintaining personal boundaries? Would you care to share what you figured out?
[photo credit: Tiffani via Flickr—>here]
(This article originally appeared on the Ex-Communications blog)
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