Tuesday, August 16, 2011

When Politeness Fails

Over at Gullible’s Travels D’Ma wrote of a recent conversation with a Sunday School teacher, asking the question almost every deconvert hears in one form or another—“Why don’t you go to Church anymore?”

Eventually, your friends, family and colleagues notice a change. You don’t scream out “Praise Jesus!” when your friends declare good news. You don’t post, “I’ll pray for you” on Facebook in response to bad news. You restrict your involvement in Church….drop out of leadership positions…stop singing in the choir….skip more and more Sunday night services………then more and more Sunday morning services…..

Either they seek you out, or (more likely) bump into you at a local establishment. After the few awkward exchanges—“How’s your spouse?”—the inevitable occurs; “We don’t see you at Church anymore…what’s up?” Like D’Ma, I demurred. “Oh, we were looking for a different direction.” “We started attending a different church.” “Our friends invited us to attend elsewhere.”

All true, mind you. Well…half true. O.K….maybe 1/8th true. The real reason was that I deconverted, and am no longer interested in worshipping a non-existent creature. I am no longer interested wasting my time singing songs with no meaning, reading verses out of context, and hearing sermons pandering to the least common denominator of emotional need.

There is no place for an atheist like me in a church.

At the time, I thought my justification for the half-truths was valid. My wife (understandably) was aghast at the turmoil created, and dreaded any confrontation on the subject. D’Ma mentioned it, but unless you have been imbedded in a church, you may not understand it—there is a gossip train like no other within the Christian community.

Yes, one attended church to worship God. Yes, we attended church to socialize with like-minded people. But we also attended to learn news. Who was divorcing whom? Whose kid was in trouble? Who got sick, lost a job, entered a cult? Alas—most times the news was lackluster at best. Christians generally shared only innocuous difficulties—“hard week at work,” “brother-in-law in car accident,” that sort of thing. Some times we had to look for the news—an ugly hat, a bratty child, a poor disposition.

And in the car, on the way home, spouses would share the news. Oh, the conversations that take place in cars between church parking lots and homes! As children we knew (and certainly as my children know) when the parents talked in very quiet voices on the way home from church—THAT was a conversation worth listening to!

It was rare one got big news—and a deconvert would be big news. Almost on par with an affair. (Sexual sins are more titillating.). Certainly equal with divorce. Better than a kid going to jail. This is news one is busting to share. Of course, it will be done in the politely worded, correct form of a prayer request—to be sure! To just blurt it out would be crass, crude and dangerously close to gossip. To blurt it out, and finish with “…we need to pray for him/her” is not only socially acceptable—it is doing God’s Work!

And (if it even lasted until Sunday), the news would spread quickly. The No. 1 conversation (and this would definitely be one of those “quiet conversations”) would be me. Us. And the question on everyone’s lips would be “Why?” Immediately followed by speculation. All gilded under “Christian concern” you understand.

Our marriage would be dissected. Our past Christian work evaluated. Smug self-praise assumed—“I always thought there was something wrong.” Because Christians presume one only deconverts for immoral purposes, they would find themselves free to fantasize about what my purpose was; indulge in both reckless character assassination AND thoughts normally forbidden.

My wife loathed the thought of this. I have slightly thicker skin, but this still would not be very pleasant. She dreaded it; I demurred. I shrank away with small excuses and polite put-offs.

And it didn’t make a damned bit of difference. We still managed to creep into prayer lists. The few I shared with, shared with others. I was a sermon example; those “in the know” immediately knew who the pastor was talking about. We still lost the friends we thought would stick by us; (hardy har har. Who were we to think our situation would be different?) we still became the outsiders.

And—like all such gossip—newer and juicer tidbits came along, relegating my deconversion to the dustbins of gossip history. With nothing more to feed the story—alas for them, I didn’t divorce my wife or declare my self a Satanist, or do anything exciting at all—it dropped and disappeared.

Leaving behind one musty uneasiness—because I didn’t address my deconversion, they don’t have to. Now when we meet, there is a slight cumbersome undertone where they know I am an atheist, they know I know they know, and yet no one addresses it. It is not so much an elephant remaining in the room, as an elephant that just leaves as we enter. A moment we see it, and then the elephant passes. Leaving us with inane, surface conversation for fear the elephant will thunder back in at any moment.

I continue to do this from politeness. I dislike confrontational Christians; likewise I presume most Christians do not appreciate a confrontational atheist. Like asking the proverbial “How are you doing?”—this isn’t a request to hear the person’s every mental and physical well-being. It is a form of greeting in our culture. In the same way, if a Christian acquaintance sees me in the fruit department at the local grocery store—they aren’t looking for a conversation comparing Matthean priority over Markan priority!

Yet I tire of it. I tire of the polite dance performed, forcing the conversation to the barest depth of relationship. With former acquaintances I welcome the shallow words as means to escape; but with my own family I find it bordering on insane—I am an atheist, time to face up to the fact! Either learn to laugh with it, learn to cry with it, or learn to ignore it—but learn to live with it!

I cannot help but wonder what it would have been like to confront deconversion head-on at the time. (Of course, not having a time machine, my wife could have become furious and I would be writing this as a divorcee right now. We never know.) I wish I could have stated, “I deconverted.” Let them know Sunday School teachers deconvert. Pastors deconvert. People you thought were the greatest spiritual leader you ever personally knew…deconvert.*

*Not that I am remotely claiming I was—I am thinking of other deconverts whose paths I’ve crossed.

Let them know life is NOT polite. It is messy. It is hard. It sometimes involves more than surface greetings and polite non-committals. Things are happening they can either choose to address or choose to ignore—but they ARE happening.

Please understand this is not a primer for what to do when deconverting. Although I mentioned D’Ma, I am absolutely not saying she should announce by billboard any change in beliefs—far from it. I empathize completely with the situation she is in. I would do the same; I DID do the same.

These are the words of a person seven years post-deconversion. A person who has found other friends and other relationships, with a few lingering family interactions and occasional acquaintance encounter. A person who avoided confrontation out of politeness and gained by it………nothing.


  1. For the record this isn't the least bit offensive to me. It was the split second decision I made; face it head on or hide. I'm not sure if I hid for myself or for her. I don't relish the thought of being fodder for Church gossip, but I've been enduring that for some time now. I made more than just the list of deconvert. I'm a divorcee. They'll all think I've lost my mind, gone off the deep end. The truth is my divorce just caused me to rethink and reexamine everything. And here I am.

  2. I try to avoid people I know who are Christians. I live in the same area I grew up in, went off to Bible College from, and pastored for 8 years.It is inevitable that I will run into someone I know every time I go out in public.

    I am regular writer of letters to the editor. I am the face of agnosticism and atheism in the area. However, I still run into people who don't read the paper and they will inevitably ask "where are you pastoring now?" I used to lie by saying "I am still looking for a church." Now I just quickly change the conversation to matters of family, weather, etc.

    Former parishioners generally steer clear of me in public. They are far more uncomfortable with me than I am with them. I am not ashamed of the gospel of atheism :)

    Of course using my real name and location on my blog leads to a lot of internet searches for "Bruce Gerencser." I like this becuase it saves the uncomfortable conversation in the grocery.

  3. If any of these people are people you would like to continue an actual relationship with, perhaps the thing to do is talk about the elephant in a non-confrontational way. I don't know if you've got humor skills, but maybe just try throwing it out there like:

    "So I guess you've heard about what happened to me, right? All this time I thought I believed in Jesus, but it turned out I was worshiping the Easter Bunny. I feel so ashamed and confused," said with a laugh and a big, friendly smile.

    If you'd rather not talk to them, well, I'm not sure. I would probably continue on with the shallow social graces, because that's just how I am. Silly as that may be.

  4. Great post, thanks for sharing.

    Untangling the webs of religious relationships is a mess, no matter how it's handled. I've taken a minimalist approach holding fast to the idea that reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn't go away. And so the nothingness that is god and god-stuff just melts away since religion is based around the social dance you described so well. In the end, the fact that not believing (theology) doesn't really matter comes back around to reinforce the realization that god doesn't exist.

  5. I was raised in a liberal Catholic home and embraced evangelical Christianity for a couple of years in my late teens. When I became disillusioned, it was personally traumatic but it was a fairly simple matter to leave it behind since I was returning to the friends and family that I had known for most of my life rather than abandoning them. It is hard for me to imagine what it must be like to leave when you have never known a life outside that world.

  6. Ive spent a great deal of time pondering this topic and becoming immobilized by it. Part of being stuck in this agnostic Christian state is this dread of what will occur if I make a decisive move from Christianity. It even affects what I write on my blog. So much is unknown that it's as difficult to count the cost of being open about deconversion as it is to count the cost of being silent. There are many ways to kill a relationship. The relationships I am most concerned about are with my family. I would never be cut off, neither divorce, alcoholism or atheism has caused anyone to be disowned in my family. However, I am as distressed by the thought of being a bitter disappointment and misery to my family as I am by the thought of reducing deep relationships to shallow, lifeless ones. I'm saddened for you, DagoodS, that none of your family relationships have withstood your deconversion well. And I remember you writing that you had written them all about your deconversion, making an effort to be direct with them. As you go forward, do you see yourself handling any interactions differently or see any value in doing so?

  7. What you're saying about christians in a church is the same thing that is said about Alcoholics Anonymous. AA falsely claims to be "spirituality, not religion", but the very same things happen there that you've described here. And people who change their minds and leave are subjected to the same treatment. All of what you say is so familiar.

  8. You make church sound a lot more interesting and exciting than it ever has been for me. How do I miss these things? Maybe I'm too aloof.

    Your experiences with your believing family as an atheist sound very similar to my experiences with my unbelieving family as a Christian. Back in my early or mid 20's when I "discovered" Christianity, I was pretty outspoken about it because I was so excited about it. It resulted in a lot of problems with my family, and I learned to shut up. Now, the subject rarely comes up. I avoid it as much as they do because it creates discomfort.