Apparently, word among my former peer group from church camp and beyond is that I’ve cut off most people from my past life. (I’m intuiting, perhaps wrongly, that the perception is also that I’m a completely different person than I once was and might be rude if someone were to reach out to me. I could be imagining things, though.)
This perception of me bothers me. A lot. I can count on one hand the number of people I’ve deliberately cut out of my life — and even then, I’d still have fingers left. Those that I did remove from my circles were because of emotional abuse, lack of boundaries, or because it was simply too painful for me to remain in contact when it was clear our relationship would never be as it once was.
I lost a lot of friends when I got married. Some of them, I’m sure, was just because it’s not unusual for there to be friendship casualties after someone gets married. But many of them thought that I was making a mistake in getting married. That having sex before marriage clouded my judgment, that I was no longer capable of making good decisions. (After all, if I could have sex outside of marriage, what else was I capable of doing?!) And I’m sure that it was clear I was struggling with my faith after my return from BJU. When the answer to anything faith-related is, “Read your Bible and pray and go to church,” and all of those things make your faith weaker and your depression stronger, I suppose it’s natural for advice-givers to grow uncomfortable and blame the person for not getting better.
A couple of years ago, before my deconversion (but in the midst of it, to be sure), I visited my church camp during a really big conference. Lots of my friends were there. Many of them seemed happy to see me. Hugs and greetings from many. But the conversation seemed…stilted. Everyone left after just a few minutes, seemingly eager to get away from me. (Maybe I’m paranoid. Maybe my social skills are completely and utterly lacking.) All I know, though, is that I tried to engage with these people I used to share my life with, and within half an hour I found myself utterly alone, looking at my husband in confusion and pain, leaving quietly as no one noticed.
That’s been the pattern, honestly. It was the pattern before then, but less pronounced. And it’s grown more pronounced since.
I recently was in a setting surrounded by members of one of my old churches. I wondered, on the drive to the event, whether it was common knowledge that I’m an atheist now. A liberal atheist at that. (Do they know there’s even a distinction?) My question was answered immediately upon arrival. We were given a wide berth as people either stared openly at us or pointedly away from us. Some families literally pulled their children closer to them, as if I might snatch them up off the path of righteousness. Amused though I was at this reception, I was relieved that a former mentor greeted me with a hug and acted like we were old friends — because we are! Maybe thing won’t be so bad, I thought to myself. I spotted a group of friends. People I thought were friends. Made my way over to them and asked if I could join them. They exchanged unhappy glances and shrugged. I tried to engage them in conversation, and was met with terse one-word answers. They seemed reluctant to even face my direction: I mostly spoke to the sides of their faces. My amusement was long since gone as sadness and panic began to engulf me. I could have wept with relief when a friend — an actual friend — joined us, talked to us. I was equally grateful for a peer who approached me as he was leaving to say hello, how nice it was to see me, exchange just a few pleasantries before he had to take off.
There are, of course, a few people who have attempted to “reach out” to me. And I don’t doubt their sincerity for a moment. But these are people with whom I was never close, people who don’t seem to understand boundaries, or respect my experiences or my beliefs. People that make me feel like a project, a lost lamb, that if they just show me some proper amount of care mixed in with “remember how good things were when you were a Christian?” that I’ll come back into the fold and everything will be how it once was, somehow. Or even the friends who seem to be accepting of me, only to suddenly say that they’re sorry for how Christians have treated me, for how I’ve lost my faith. They mean well, and I love them, but I have no response that feels appropriate.
I don’t know how to handle these situations. I have no wish to be rude, but I also have no patience for proselytizing or manipulation. I have no way of knowing how to say, “Yeah, Christians were pretty awful, but not all of them, and that’s not why I lost my faith. It may have contributed, but it’s not like it was the only factor or even the main factor.” I don’t want to feel like I have to defend my unbelief. I simply…want to have a relationship with people whom I loved and who I thought loved me for so many years. I don’t understand why my lack of faith necessitates that our friendship must now be void. I don’t know how to handle the overwhelming grief that I feel for the friendships that seem to be forever lost to me. I don’t know how to approach someone and say honestly, “We shared so many years and moments of our lives together. Is nothing of that worth salvaging, just because we no longer share the same faith? Am I worthless now that I’m not a Christian?”
Part of me (or, truth be told, the voices of former friends and mentors and family) says that I can’t be upset about this. That I shouldn’t expect any different after making my lack of belief so public. That I have done something that is so horribly wrong that of course my entire former faith community cannot associate with me, because I have offended them and cut them off. Because apparently if I don’t love God, I can’t possibly love them.
How can I explain that it’s not like I expect you to never mention your faith? Of course you’ll talk about it. It’s important to you. It’s a governing factor of your life. But that doesn’t mean it has to be a governing factor in my life, and it doesn’t mean it has to be the focal point of our relationship, does it?
Am I worthless to you now that I’m not a Christian? Am I somehow less-than-human, without feeling, without morality, without any good thing? Does my lack of belief mean that I am the darkness with whom you can have no fellowship? Am I completely lacking light just because we disagree?
In some ways, I definitely did expect this. I was a Christian once. I was an assembly girl. I believed all of this. I probably would have done the same thing. And anyway, it’s not like this all is super surprising, considering that the majority of my friend group went mysteriously silent and absent after my marriage.
And yet I can’t help but hurt. Grieve.
I just wish I could find a somehow non-offensive and non-hurtful and non-invasive way to say, “I don’t believe in your god, but that doesn’t mean I don’t still love you.”