I’ve talked before about how after a deconversion, it becomes difficult to deal with the changing relationships that often accompany it. That’s true as well of others on the other side of that shift, though, and I’ve had a lot of time to think about how that affects other people, especially my wife. I’m not without sympathy for that position, certainly.
I was reminded of this recently when a Christian friend of mine sent me a message about a personal situation (shared here with permission and edited gently for clarity and anonymity):
I have a friend who is extremely close; we’ve been friends for many years. She has gone through a fairly dramatic shift in beliefs over the past couple of years, and awhile back she told me she doesn’t call herself a Christian now. … [T]his friend has always been someone who I’ve been able to talk to both about my positive faith experiences and my doubts and frustrations. Now that she’s told me that she doesn’t consider herself Christian, I feel a bit awkward whenever I bring up anything positive in regards to my faith. I sometimes feel the need to preface my statements and feelings with “but that’s just what I believe,” which I never had to do in the past. I’m not quite sure how to navigate this change; I definitely don’t want to create distance between us and I want to give her the space to question and explore as needed, but at the same time I want to be able to still “be myself” with her if that makes sense.
Any thoughts regarding this?
I think this question comes from exactly the right place: a desire to retain a degree of comfort but also with recognition of the other person’s changing perspective. I’ve written before about my own father prefacing his religious sentiments to me in a similar way, and I have no reason to think that he is coming from any less sincere place than my friend.
But sincerity is no substitute for understanding, only a starting point. With that in mind, I think there are several things to keep in mind here.
The Reasons Matter
I say this first as a caveat: I had a very atypical deconversion in some ways (if indeed there is a “typical” way; there are certainly stereotypes and clichés). So part of what I’m saying is from my own personal perspective, having gone from the early days of struggle to the relative peace that I have as a secular person, but also with the experiences of others in mind as I’ve heard them (and I have listened to many).
Why someone leaves religion or abandons their religious label or affiliation — forget about what beliefs specifically have changed — makes all the difference in how you should consider broaching the subject of faith or religion, even obliquely.
The biggest consideration here, of course, is trauma.
Sometimes people leave religion on the worst of terms: They have been spiritually abused by leaders or fellow believers; they have been ostracized by their faith community; their questions have not just been dismissed but shouted down; and so on. In this case, you should make every effort to provide some distance from the topic.
That may seem a bit extreme, but consider a different scenario: Your friend has just come out of a long and horribly abusive relationship. Are you likely to talk about your dating life or your marriage with them, or will that be a subject that just discreetly stays out of your conversations? I’d guess the latter.
If it’s not that serious a breakup from religion, you probably won’t have to abstain entirely. After all, your friend almost certainly isn’t avoiding religion entirely; even in less religious cultures, religion still has a presence. If they can tolerate it as perhaps a general annoyance, they may not care if it comes up sometimes in your conversations.
More Change Might Be Too Much
In fact, it’s quite possible that quitting the religious talk cold turkey might itself be a bad thing. One of the things about deconversion is that it often brings with it a fair amount of personal upheaval. You start to rethink your identity (as this friend has clearly done), you have to re-examine your thinking about issues related to religion, and you have to get an idea of how all of this will affect your relationships. That’s already a lot to handle. What your friend might need is an anchor — even if it brings (pardon the mixed metaphor) a little baggage.
So abstinence for the sake of avoiding awkwardness may not itself be a positive move. You might just be making it completely obvious to your friend that you know something’s different, and it makes you too uncomfortable to talk about. Your discomfort is likely to make your friend uncomfortable as well, which of course is not the intention. (And if, as in my friend’s case, they have been a sounding board for doubts and questions, that might actually enhance the understanding.)
How then do you know the difference between giving space and providing some sense of constancy for your friend? Well…
The Best Prescription
At the risk of saying something completely obvious: Talk to them.
I don’t mean that to sound condescending (and I certainly don’t mean it as such to my friend, who asked me this question in all earnest), but it is all too easy to get stuck in the abstractions of these issues. What you have to figure out now is what your friend needs — and the best person to know that is them.
After all, you might not know all the details of their journey out of religion. You might not be aware of traumatic experiences as mentioned above. You might not have seen the weeks, months, years of thoughtful reflection about their beliefs. You might not have had any idea that they just gradually stopped caring about religion at all.
Most of all, you have to trust that they are ready to tell you where they are, and if they haven’t fully done so already, you need to just ask.
It should be something you can do in a nonchalant way (do not act like it’s an intervention or a crisis!). Consider the following starter:
Hey [friend’s name], I’ve been thinking a lot about how you said you don’t consider yourself a [Christian/Muslim/pagan/whatever] anymore, and I wanted to know if it bothers you at all to bring up religious issues. I know that religion is less important to you now, and even though it’s still important to me, it’s not worth straining our friendship over. What’s your comfort level?
From there, you just have to listen and proceed with the conversation. If your friendship has been marked with openness prior to this, then there’s every reason to think that you can make that translate to this slightly modified situation. Your paths might have diverged a bit, but you can still share the journey.
Taking that first step is the hard part. The rest is up to you.
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