Anyone with the nerve to “come out” as an atheist to religious friends and family knows how much it grates to be told:
“We all go through periods of doubt. It’s just a phase. You’ll come back around.”
When you look up the word “patronize” in the dictionary, this comment should be one of the first examples they give.
But then again, Christianity has never been very good at respecting personal boundaries. Why would they value the opinions of a person so wicked they made God kill himself? They’re not too worried about your personal agency, you being “bought with a price” and all. People who can be purchased don’t get to make their own decisions. They’re someone else’s property.
Sadly, you cannot make them hear how condescending they sound when they say things like this. Call it privilege deafness. Tone is completely lost on them because they are so certain they are right and you are wrong that it never occurs to them to worry how they’re coming across. Earthen vessels or not, their theology has filled them to the brim with intoxicating self-assurance.
Why So Tone Deaf?
Theology aside, there are several factors making this tendency even worse.
First, if we’re talking about your parents, they may be under the influence of what Dave Ramsey calls “powdered butt syndrome.” Once you’ve been responsible for changing someone’s diapers, it can be difficult to view him or her as a peer whose thoughts and opinions should be given weight equal to yours. The irony there, of course, is that in time those roles get reversed, adding a whole new meaning to Wordsworth’s observation that “the child is the father of the man.”
At some level they could also be dealing with their own existential angst since some part of them knows there are good reasons for your loss of faith. If it’s true that they themselves have walked through the Valley of the Shadow of Doubt, then your departure may be stirring up fears and uncertainties they spent a good deal of emotional energy trying to bury. More on that a little later.
On top of all that, they’re also dealing with the social stigma of your apostasy: What will people think of them if you just walk away, leaving it all behind? This hurts their reputation and to their minds that makes this their business. Remember, religions are ultimately social constructs, so the loss of each individual believer weakens the whole structure whether you meant for it to or not.
“How could you do this to us?” they ask through tears, making this all about them. Funny, all those years you probably thought that God was the one with whom you had entered into a relationship, but now the truth comes out: It’s really about the tribe.
Religions persist not because they are actually true but because they serve useful functions for the communities that enshrine them. Whether you mean to or not, your leaving hurts the team and that scandalizes your loved ones. Consequently, they can’t resist the urge to coax and cajole you back into the fold. The needs of their faith outweigh everything else.
Been There, Done That
I’ve noticed when those who are still devout talk about their own struggles with doubt, they rarely speak of resolving anything, or finding answers to their questions. More often than not, the way they talk about their experience indicates that they found a way to care less about the issues that bothered them in the first place. The things they tell me indicate they tapped out when realized their whole life’s framework would collapse if they didn’t find a way to put it all behind them.
For evangelical Christians, unbelief is a moral issue—a failure to choose the right way to think about things. To them, doubts are “the work of the enemy,” and setting aside your questions is an act of worship showing God where your true priorities lie.
How do I know so much about the way these rationalizations operate, you may ask? It’s because I went through that very process myself many times before I finally figured out what was happening. In other words, what they are going through right now was for me a phase that I finally outgrew. How ironic.
How do you suppose your concerned friend or family member would respond if you turned the tables on them and told them they were just going through a phase of their own? They would probably find that offensive, wouldn’t they? They would tell you it’s condescending to talk down to other people like that. Finally, something we can agree on!
The Last Gasp of Faith
We know all too well what it feels like to keep reining in our thirst for understanding, and most of us tried a lot of desperate things to salvage our faith. Some of them even worked for a time, but eventually they all petered out.
Speaking personally, I threw myself into ministry with greater fervor and even went so far as to write and publish a book encapsulating everything I thought I understood about the faith that directed my life for twenty years. I even went on a kind of pilgrimage to visit churches in other parts of the country because I wanted to see how well they put into practice the things I had come to believe about the Christian faith. But by then it was already too late. This was my last gasp of faith.
I surveyed friends online to hear which things they threw themselves into in order to salvage their last threads of faith, and these are the kinds of things they said:
Many dove headlong into a more intense study of the Bible, in some cases even acquiring a formal degree. Quite a few of us spent time studying apologetics, listening to debates and reading books by Ravi Zacharias, Lee Stroebel, C.S. Lewis, Tim Keller, and Josh McDowell. Some focused all their energy into intercessory prayer, while others went on faraway mission trips or else poured themselves into evangelism right where they live.
Many of us tried changing denominations, some of us several times (“Maybe Lutheran this time? And what exactly is Orthodoxy, anyway? Maybe they’ve got it right?”). One friend said she switched denominations and faith traditions like a teenager looking for the perfect prom dress. Still others joined up with movements like Passion and Promise Keepers, and many went looking for signs and wonders (miracles! exorcisms! near-death experiences!) to help revive their slowly dying faith.
One of the most common refrains I heard was that their last stop on the way out the door put them among more progressive or liberal communities within Christianity. They read books by Pete Enns, Rob Bell, Bishop Spong, and Rachel Held Evans (I really miss her). They joined up with affirming (LGBT friendly) churches, half of which had “Journey” in their name, and many wound up in the most popular final whistle stop of all: the Episcopal church.
Most or all of these moves were taken in order to create a mental space big enough (and vague enough) to accommodate the cognitive dissonance they were feeling at the time. It takes a great deal of mental gymnastics to live in the tension between what you’re told to believe and what you actually see in the world around you. Many of us went on an intense philosophical journey, eventually spouting off theological dialectics so convoluted they made less and less sense the longer we listened to ourselves.
We were basically gaslighting ourselves, trying to convince ourselves the best way to do the Christian faith today is to define it so ambiguously it becomes impossible to say whether we’re wrong or right. You have to actually say something that makes sense to be wrong in the first place, so we simply learned to embrace nonsense, holding together irreconcilable ideas as if that’s just the way things are.
You can spend years in this theological limbo, but eventually these last ditch efforts ran their course for us and we came to grips with the realization that our faith had breathed its last breath a long time ago.
Flipping the Script
I’m taking the time to detail these last ditch efforts because we need reminding that other people are still there, plugging holes in the dam with their fingers in a desperate attempt to save their own dying faith.
What if we stole a page from their book? What if we decided that where they are may be “just a phase” for them the same way it was for you? Try to view the tension created by their fervor for your re-conversion as a light and momentary trial that will produce something far better in the end. How would that alter the way you hear them?
Granted, in your case we may be talking about people who quit learning new things ages ago. Or we may be talking about aging loved ones so preoccupied with preparing to meet their Maker that they couldn’t possibly alter their courses now. Don’t spoil a relationship by talking down to them, making the same mistake for which you criticize their religion. “Being right” isn’t really worth the division it brings, in my opinion.
But if there’s any plasticity at all left in the other person’s brain, consider the possibility that some day in the future, the friend or family member currently giving you ulcers may change their mind about one thing or another. Maybe they’ll even go back and forth several times…after which point they start to understand why people quit believing after all.
Like you once did, they are learning to live with so little return on their faith they’re becoming like “The Crane Wife” from an article I recently read. You just learn to have no needs of your own, erasing yourself from the equation entirely. I don’t call that being fully alive. That’s not “life more abundant.” That’s being enslaved to a social script created to preserve institutions. But I digress.
The point is I think it would help to consider the possibility that the person giving you the most grief about your departure from the faith does so because he or she is teetering on the edge of their own faith as well, whether they realize it or not. You’ve simply become the focal point for their struggle.
Would that make you more patient with them? If so, consider viewing them through that lens for a while. See if it helps. It certainly helps me.
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