Hey, everybody! Welcome back! I’m so glad you’re here, especially if you were at our last talk. You know, sometimes I really worry about having these kinds of conversations with Christians, because they so often just don’t go very well. But I know you’re really trying to be kind to me and people like me, and you really want to interact with people outside your spheres in as loving and helpful a way as possible. And you know what? We’re totally on the same page with that! I think we could do such important work in the world around us if we can figure out a way to work together.
Unfortunately, we’re still running into communication problems. You see, I know what it’s like to be in your shoes — because I’ve actually been there. It’s so easy for me to empathize with where you’re coming from, in part because of my personality but largely because it was scant years ago that I would have been working from your same belief system and worldview.
This is going to sound awkward, but…from what I can see, you don’t really seem interested in understanding my perspective on much of anything.
The two greatest commandments Jesus is said to have ever given were these: love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength; and love your neighbor as yourself. As Christians, I know you seek to follow these commandments with particular fervor since Jesus Himself placed such a high priority on them. When you talk to unbelievers like me, you’re trying to be loving to us. I know that, and most of my fellow ex-Christians know that, too. Not many of us doubt your sincerity as a whole.
But last week, when I tried to explain the importance of approaching unbelievers with empathy and respect, I think I may have been talking over your heads a little bit. Not that you don’t know what empathy and respect are — I don’t doubt your intelligence one bit, and I know you know they’re important aspects of loving your neighbors. I just think we’re working with fundamentally different definitions of those words.
Basically, you do and say things you think are respectful and loving, but they just don’t translate into respect or love to the people you’re trying to reach. And that’s a pretty massive problem. Cassidy puts it like this:
If we grew up in a household where smacking someone upside the head was interpreted as loving, and then went out to smack someone upside the head to show that we loved that person, we’d get told immediately, “That is not loving to me; it hurts me and traumatizes me. Please stop it.” And we’d be mortified, because we want to show love and obviously we chose a way of showing love that our target did not think was loving at all but rather found hurtful and damaging. We’d find out what our target thought was loving, and we’d do that instead. We’d know that sometimes people just don’t have the awareness to know this stuff without asking and learning, and we’d be more interested in ensuring that our target felt loved than about getting our way.
Because we are loving and empathetic people, we would not say, “Well, smacking you is how we show love, so you’d better just get with the program because we’re not changing.”
So if you don’t mind, today I’m going to walk back a little bit and cover some things that might seem even more basic than our last conversation. I just want to make sure that we’re all on the same page.
An integral part of loving someone is listening to them with humility.
Quick to (mis)hear.
I was recently featured in a blog post that sought to explain why people like me leave the faith, and what Christians can do about it. I actually don’t mind posts like this in general. In fact, I think if more Christians asked those of us who aren’t believers anymore why we leave, y’all could make the church a happier and healthier place (which would in turn make the world a happier and healthier place — winners all around!). But that’s kind of part of the problem. I wasn’t asked any questions at all. My story, instead, is being used as a cautionary tale of how to atheist-proof the faith of the next generation. This person, well-meaning though I’m sure he is, didn’t listen to a single word I said about my own experiences growing up in the church or why I left. He cited my article, but drew drastically wrong conclusions — conclusions that, had he actually listened to what I’ve said about myself and my experiences, he couldn’t possibly have reached.
The statement he makes that frustrates me the most is the following: “The focus on what not to do and who not to associate with left a bad taste in their mouths and acted as precursors for their deconversions.” This is absolutely not true — for me or for many, many, many of my fellow ex-Christians. In fact, the point I’ve personally sought to make often in my writing is that Christianity meant the world to me, and following the rules was how I showed God my love for Him. I loved my upbringing. I was thrilled to go to my church (which, by the way, is actually less fundamentalist than many Plymouth Brethren assemblies, not more). I adored my church camp. My closest friends and role models were Christians in my particular denomination, and I didn’t feel mistreated or unloved or restricted — in part because I knew no other way of life, and in part because I embraced faith in God as the only part of my life worth living and obedience to those He put in authority over me as proof of my undying devotion to Him. In fact, I often immediately gave up things I thought God wanted me to give up — not because I was focused on what I could and couldn’t do, but because I was focused on what would bring me closer to God. Such a blatant mischaracterization as was made in that post isn’t loving or respectful at all.
This sort of thing happens a lot. You’ll approach me with why you think I really stopped being a Christian, as if it’s a huge secret that, if you can just crack the code, you could make sure no one would leave the team ever again. And usually, much like this person said, you assume I just didn’t pick the right flavor of Christianity. Or I just didn’t really know Jesus. Or as a recent reader suggested, I just left the bad Christians behind but not Jesus.
You’re taking ownership of my story, mangling it beyond recognition, then insisting I accept your version rather than my own. You’re saying you’re a better judge of my experiences and life than I am. And when you suppose these things about my life and my beliefs, you are being incredibly disrespectful and unloving. Like Cassidy said. it’s like you grew up in a home where smacking someone upside the head was considered loving, and you’re now indignant that you can’t smack me, too.
I get it. I do. I did the same thing. I believed rather strongly that anyone who left the faith was never a Christian to begin with but had been deceived into thinking they were. And I wasn’t shy about this belief, nor did I falter in said belief.
Until it happened to me.
You’re welcome, fellow former CCM fans of a particular calibur. Phil Keaggy is basically always relevant, even if I totally disagree with his message.
My experience of moving from True Believer™ to Atheist completely flies in the face of everything we’ve been taught about how the world both physically and spiritually works. And that’s some scary stuff. If you believe like I did, your faith teaches no one can pluck a child of God out of the Father’s hand. Anyone who has really tasted the fruit of the Lord could never leave. The heart of man is deceitful and desperately wicked, so of course he may think he’s saved when he’s really not.
Honestly, there are all kinds of really convenient faith-proofing beliefs that make processing the exit of a former Christian a lot simpler than it would be if you were to actually listen to what we have to say about our own experiences. It’s just way easier to explain away my story with a God-approved pre-made argument rather than believe that I really and truly loved God with all my heart, soul, mind and strength…right up until the moment I couldn’t believe anymore.
This is where humility comes in.
Grace for the humble.
One of the simplest definitions of humility that I’ve ever heard is that it’s “the quality or state of not thinking you are better than other people.” Typically, humility is often juxtaposed with arrogant pride (not to be confused with the healthy kind of pride). And believing you have special knowledge about a person’s life that overrides and contradicts that person’s lived experience and stated perspective of their own life is nothing if not arrogant.
There are, of course, exceptions to this, usually with demonstrable evidence to back it up. For instance, when people like Larry and Cari Williams are lauded as “loving parents with the ability to raise children appropriately,” evidence clearly indicates that actually they didn’t raise their children appropriately — from the emotional and physical abuse of their birth children to the cruel and unusual torture they rained upon their adopted children, even to the point of death. In instances like these, it’s clear that outside perspective and correction is needed because someone isn’t self-aware enough to realize the harmful delusion under which they’re living.
I know that a lot of times, that’s exactly how you see us. You believe we’re living under a harmful delusion that we won’t be barbecued forever alongside Satan and his hoard of evil minions, and so you have to do whatever it takes to make us see reason. Before we hop along that rabbit trail, I want to point out that this line of argument with someone who doesn’t believe in the supernatural is completely and utterly pointless, and gets you no closer to your goal of actually demonstrating your love and care for us. In fact, it’s an extension of not listening to us — it’s like you think deep down we really do believe so if you can scare us with what’s to come, we’ll change our mind, or if you successfully cold read us, we’ll “break down and start weeping aloud the Sinner’s Prayer.” Those sorts of things are also incredibly disrespectful and dare I say manipulative and underhanded?
So what are you supposed to do then? Your belief system says one thing, and yet almost everyone who’s left says something different. It’s so much easier to cling blindly to your faith and write off an entire swath of people whose experiences are inconvenient to you. It really is just so much easier, and I understand why so many of you do it.
But is that the loving thing to do?
Are ideals more important to you than the actual real live people in your life? Is it more important for you to be right than for you to form a connection with another human being? Are you so determined to be right about your faith and right about how wrong we are that we’ve ceased being humans only to become projects or obstacles?
What if you could hold your faith and our experiences in tension together — listening to us without reacting defensively and maybe even validating our experiences and personhood? After all, don’t you believe we’re all made in God’s image? What would this even look like in a practical sense?
Don’t be so quick to brush us off because our beliefs aren’t the same. Surrounding yourself only with people who agree with you creates an echo chamber that will never help you grow.
Believe us when we tell you about our former faith. Even if it doesn’t make sense to you that someone could love God then not believe in Him anymore, believe us. We know ourselves better than you do. We were there the whole time. We know what happened.
Resist the urge to become defensive when we tell you about our lives and experiences as Christians and the problems we encountered therein. Instead, be willing to examine your own heart and your own church. Are you just angry that changing how you show love means you can’t smack people anymore? Or do we maybe have a few points about what’s wrong with the church?
Be quick to hear, slow to speak, and slow to anger. It may just be possible that even we have something to teach you about following God’s second greatest commandment, if only you’ll show humility in listening.