Those of us who used to be devout face a tricky challenge when we go through trying times. There used to be easier ways for us to share our pains and losses with others and receive support. Church has its drawbacks, to be sure, but after we leave it behind we find we are giving up a source of community we once enjoyed, and possibly even took for granted. This is precisely why so many who long ago lost their faith still attend church to this day. It’s a way not to be alone.
Now that we have left the fold, many of us are reluctant to tell those around us what we’re going through. “Stuffing” our problems is quite common among deconverts like myself. I often hear friends say that they don’t ever want to tell their religious friends or family when they’re going through something bad because they so frequently seize upon those moments to hit us again with a gospel sales pitch. It happens all. the. time.
Sometimes people claim God is making us suffer like he did Job, in order to prove something, or to resuscitate our faith. Those are the ones who worship the sovereign God who can drown almost everything alive and yet remain above reproach. Others worship one of the other versions of God who would never cause pain in one of his creatures, but still allows pain to come upon them as an opportunity to swoop in and save them from it—if only they’ll turn and say the magic words, of course.
Both of those groups see pain and suffering as a message from God—either actively sent or else passively allowed for a greater good. Many of them also feel duty-bound to inform you of this, because anything less would be unloving, right?
A friend of mine gets panic attacks and bouts of depression but hides them from her parents because they inevitably see her disorder as a sign that she needs to come back to the faith. Another friend lost his job and almost lost his family because they found out he’s no longer a Christian. But rather than seeing what happened to him as the result of the actions of other people, most folks around him interpreted his losses as a kind of punishment for his crime of leaving the faith.
Another friend shared this screencap just this week, which reminded me how regularly this happens to people who have left their faith.
Fortunately, when I go through hard times, most people in my life are like the last person who commented above. They have more sense than to tell me point blank that God is letting me suffer in order to prove something or make me repent of my unbelief. That would ruin their preferred picture of God. They feel sorry for my pain and hope things get better, and perhaps they even pray for me. In the end I don’t take offense at that, so long as they do as Jesus suggested and keep their prayers to themselves (heh).
But unfortunately I’ll never be able to completely forget that it was at my lowest point—a point much lower than I’ve been any time recently—when someone close to me was in a position to ease my suffering and chose not to, at least in part because a trusted spiritual advisor recommended inaction. “Perhaps in the end it is good that Neil remain uncomfortable for a time,” he said in a message I was not supposed to see but found by sheer accident. “Maybe it will wake him up.”Indeed no action to relieve my suffering was taken, and as a result I went through one of the darkest times I believe I will ever walk through. Something like that never leaves you, because you never forget the ones who kick you while you’re down. In this particular case it was a trusted minister. All in the name of love, of course.
Blood in the Water
It’s during moments like these when I realize religion can at times behave like a predatory thing. It can sniff out pain and loss from afar, and like a moth drawn to a flame (or like a personal injury lawyer to the scene of an accident) it feels compelled to descend upon the suffering of others. They are only there to help, of course. And honestly it makes me feel like a jerk to acknowledge the parallels, but the similarities are undoubtedly there. Religious groups so often reach out to people when they are at their weakest point, capitalizing on the suffering of others. Despite their best intentions, this is ultimately predatory behavior.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had someone put their hand on my shoulder and tell me in the most patronizing way, “One day, you’ll see. When you are at your lowest point, that’s when you’ll realize that you’re wrong, and that you need God.” Note that this stops short of audibly wishing misfortune on another, but I can’t help wondering if at some level they need to see us suffer as a vindication that ultimately they are right and we are wrong? It doesn’t take much to imagine that dynamic playing out in the recesses of a person’s mind, particularly if they are struggling to find external signs of validation for their faith in a world which no longer privileges their tribe among all the others (at least not as much as it used to).
I can’t stop them from thinking such things, and far be it from me to hold them accountable for only thinking it without saying it out loud. I mean, who would hold people accountable for merely thinking things if they don’t actually act on them, right? But I want to encourage them to deliberately fight back against these thoughts because they are ultimately not kind, not healthy, and they are most definitely not going to improve the relationship if they are ever voiced out loud. They would sound callous and cold, because that’s what they are.
These are not benevolent thoughts, they are proprietary. These thoughts come from an ideology that craves conquest and feeds on an implicit agreement from everyone in a community that this—and this alone—is the only right way to think about the world. All other views are evil, and maybe ultimately it’s okay for misfortune to befall the people who depart from the one right way to think. What an awful sentiment! People rarely admit having this thought process, but it tends to seep through the things they say anyway.
So that’s why we try not to talk too much about our pain and our losses. It has to get really bad for us to finally speak up, and when we do we can’t help but think at some level people are pleased to see things going badly.
And no, not all Christians go through this process. Many have a much healthier—and I would argue much less biblical—approach to their faith. Thankfully these folks are around if you look for them. Those are the folks I don’t mind talking to when times get tough.
[Portions of this article appeared previously on Godless in Dixie]