Remember our parents always used to say, “Don’t talk religion or politics.” There’s nothing more divisive than those two topics. Yet sometimes, we need to talk about our religious beliefs. Coming out to friends and family can be difficult for many reasons, and each situation, each person, is different. I hope this post sparks a useful discussion (here you go, Shelley). I look forward to everyone’s input.
A. Is keeping quiet and playing along causing you grief?
If yes, go to question B. If no, keep reading here: Sometimes, it’s easier to just play along. I’ll give you an example. My 80-something-year-old grandmother was a devout Catholic, and she believed with every last cell in her body that she would meet her entire family in heaven. She was a simple woman, and her family was her world. Why hurt her by telling her I’m not a believer? She would only worry about me, and she did not have the ability to even begin to understand why I’m a nonbeliever.
B. Do you know this person?
If yes, go on to question C. If no, keep reading here: If you don’t know the person, and you’ve been cornered some place (or even at your home) by a Jesus salesman, then, by all means, share your views with him or her. This doesn’t mean we have to steamroll them with facts and logic, but just say, “No thanks, I don’t believe, and I won’t discuss this with you.” If you are up for a little entertainment and would like a reminder of why you’re not a believer, you may want to engage in a conversation with God’s head hunter. But always, since we represent “our kind,” I think we should avoid being belligerent or hostile. It only turns us in to one of them. (Think of all the antagonistic evangelicals we know.) We want to be the voice of reason, and that means leaving emotion out of our conversations. I know, I know. Theses people can be frustrating. You and I realize that the very annoying stranger trying to sell us on their god or their church doesn’t even realize they are not working for god, but for themselves. Finding converts means an express-pass to heaven, and all they’re really trying to do is save themselves. Still, we have to forgive them their ignorance.
C. Are you friends or family?
If you are family, go on to question D. If you are friends, read here: Friendships are like marriages. You and your friend are attracted to each other for some reason, and you have to be compatible to sustain the relationship. There is some commonality in which you can relate. Sometimes, these common interests change. Sometimes, we just outgrow our friends. But I can tell you that, while you may mourn the loss of a friend because of religious differences, ultimately, you’re better off. Trust me, in most cases, they won’t respect your views. Each religion teaches its followers that their way is the right and only way, so naturally your friends will always be right. And if you come clean that you’re a nonbeliever, you’ll always be a threat to and a splinter in their “spiritual” health (or, psyche, to us). Why a threat? Because you’re rejecting their belief system, and in doing so, you tell them their beliefs don’t make sense. Because, when it comes to religion, there is strength in numbers. And when you doubt, when you say you don’t believe, you make them feel insecure about their own beliefs. For you and me, we’ll always look at our religious friends askance and wonder how flipping crazy is it to believe that god is talking to them or has planned out the minutiae of their lives. Every time we hear a godism, we’ll cringe. And every time we hear a Christian friend complain about giving access to affordable healthcare to the poor, we’ll note the hypocrisy because Jesus enthusiasts are supposed to love their neighbors and help the poor.
On the other hand, there will be some friends that you can come out to without jeopardizing your friendship. You’ll know who they are. Friends who are loosely tethered to their religions (for example, a lot of Catholics) or friends who are just more tolerant (people who are from certain areas of the country). To these friends, your disclosure will mean nothing more than a preference for a certain color or a certain beer or wine.
Some friends just won’t get what you’re saying. I have a friend who thinks I just don’t believe in religion, and no matter how many times I tell her, she just cannot (or will not) understand that I don’t believe in god either. Every once in a while, she tells me I’m going to heaven because “I’m a good person, no matter what I believe.” I think she is in denial because she wants to maintain our friendship. And that’s ok with me, but she won’t be one of my close friends. The friends you hold near and dear accept you, and they can say, “I know she doesn’t believe in god, and she’s still my friend.”
D. If you cannot stand it any more, and need to be heard and understood by your family, you might just softly say (and I’ve had to do this), “I’m sorry. I’ve given my religious belief a lot of thought and consideration. I respect how you believe (mom, dad, brother), but I just don’t believe any more. I’m agnostic/atheist.”
I had to tell my folks, and while my mom is, like any other mother, devoted and loving, it does pain her that I don’t believe. There is a chasm, too, when we talk, because she believes in things like mediums and talking to spirits, and she knows I don’t. Still, she hopes I will. I understand her need for these things, and I listen to her and don’t criticize. (Instead, I come on here and vent!) But we have to consider the intentions of the people who love us. They are fearful that we will not be “saved.” I know my mother is disappointed in me, and I realize that coming out to her was better for me, but clearly not for her. She prays for me because she doesn’t want me going to the deep, deep south after I die. That’s fine. Her prayers don’t hurt me, but they bring her some kind of comfort. From my perspective, it was better to be honest than to continue living a lie—or worse, to have my mom find out from someone else who had reads my articles. Yes, I will still attend church with her, but I will not participate as a believer, only as a person who respects other’s traditions. I sit and stand on queue, but I do not say the prayers or take the sacraments.
Sometimes, you might encounter some anger or resistance rather than sadness and disappointment. I offer that we just calmly continue to tell others, “I respect your right to believe; please respect my right not to.” We will not gain acceptance by kicking down the front door. We have to desensitize believers and let them know we are not a threat to them. No matter what we say, they will not budge from their place of belief or understand where we are coming from. We cannot open a door for them. They will have to do it themselves. The best we can hope for is that they leave us in peace. American Christians are like no other. Most believe they believe they have an inalienable right to force their belief system on everyone else, whether it’s an individual, a group of people or a nation, and our goal is to break free from that mindset.
In all interactions with those who believe, whether the person is our best friend or a stranger, I think we should be a good representative for our cause and show them that there is no war on religion; we just want the same rights and respect as believers. We don’t try to talk them out of believing, and we don’t want the religious to try to talk us into believing. We are not in the market for god or religion.
There is a tolerance paradox, meaning we are sometimes intolerant of those who are not tolerant and hence intolerant ourselves. I know I can fall into this trap, but I try to remember where intolerance comes from. It grows out of fear and out of focusing too much on the self, and those are two things that religion encourages. A lot.
Sorry this post grew so long. I would love to hear your experiences and/or thoughts on how to talk to others about your beliefs.