Black Agnostic Wants to Leave Church April 30, 2009

Black Agnostic Wants to Leave Church

This letter to Salon‘s advice columnist Cary Tennis will be familiar to a lot of readers:

I am an African-American male who, after several years of being a conservative, evangelical Christian, now considers myself to be a “Jesus-admiring, agnostic humanist” who also attends weekly church services at a predominantly African-American Missionary Baptist congregation with my conservative Christian wife. In light of this, I have long agonized over the idea of announcing my philosophical position to my Christian spouse, family and friends.

He’s risking a lot by coming out. But perhaps he’ll be worse off if he keeps this to himself.

Tennis actually has good advice at first:

Now, of course, in a way your wife does love exactly who you are. I feel sure that there is something about your questioning nature, your rational mind, your courage, your clear-eyed vision, that she does love deeply. Nonetheless, when we reveal who we really are, it changes the nature of love. It changes how we are loved, and for what. She can no longer love you as a churchgoing man if you stop going to church.

And there is the frightening possibility hovering at the edges that our lover might not love us at all, but only the false self we have presented. We do love characters in movies and books that are not real. Why should we not fall in love with other invented characters? For that matter, how could anyone love our true self if we have kept our true self secret?

So you risk a lot. But you risk it for the biggest prize of all: to be loved for who you really are.

Of course, Tennis screws it all up with his last couple paragraphs.

One commenter raises a point that makes this man’s case unique, though, addressing the cultural issues that are a part of the black atheist’s quandary:

… I know how gut-wrenching such a separation will be because the black Protestant community is not just a place one goes to worship, it literally can become the social center of one’s life. Voluntarily cutting himself off from his religious community is like suffering a cherem. It’s worse than excommunication; it’s literally a social exclusion which could seriously damage his marriage and literally leave him isolate…

So how would you advice this person?

Should he come out and be honest?

Should he suck it up and keep his cultural ties to church even if he doesn’t believe in God?

Normally, I’m all for people coming out as atheists. This twist makes it a lot harder, though, and I’m not so quick to think I know the answer.

(via Racialicious — Thanks to Eliza for the link!)

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  • Sam

    Obviously I don’t know that particulars of the man’s situation, but I would suggest coming out as an agnostic. He may not want to make an announcement at church, but perhaps start small and tell his wife and close friends. Presumably, they care for him and will continue to care no matter what.
    Generally, I think it may turn out better than expected. Perhaps he will find that there are others who do not have to courage to come out about it.
    Ultimately, I find it is easier to be who you are than to fake that you are something else for the benefit of others. It is akin to lying in my mind to misrepresent yourself. I know that I am more willing to deal with a hard-to-swallow-truth than a blatant and purposeful deception and so I try to be honest. I think this man should do the same, even if it is really difficult.

  • Polly

    Isn’t it amazing that something as personal and, in a way, as meaningless as whether he holds a particular philosophical stance on the question of the existence of a being – that even by the admission of its servants moves in ways that are completely indistinguishable from the laws of physics – should be cause for so much concern?

    I mean, what if he one day decides his favorite color is pink instead of (mandatory boy color) blue? That’s about the same level of relevance to other people around him. No one else should care about what kinds of questions and philosophies are rattling around in your head if it doesn’t worsen your character.

    Isn’t it crazy to suffer isolation – or burn in Hell forever – for thinking…harmless thoughts?

  • CatBallou

    Living a lie for the sake of community would be excruciating. He would suffer for the rest of his life, feeling that internal conflict every single day.
    “Coming out” would also be excruciating, but not forever. Divorce, separation from one’s community, rejection by one’s family—all of these are terribly painful, but those wounds can be healed. He can find a new community. He can live with integrity. He can be himself.

    The comparison to homosexuality is not strained. If this were any other characteristic that would lead to rejection, such as homosexuality, a criminal past, or conversion to a different religion, he would know that the truth does, indeed, set you free.
    But no one said freedom was easy!

  • Polly, there’s something about how I perceive that comment which just really grabs and captures the absurdity of religious bickering and puts it on full display for me.

    I agree entirely…beautiful observation, very well put.

  • If honesty truly is the best policy, I would suggest starting by being honest with your wife.

    Additionally, I would recommend reading how others have left the church and told their families. I did find several stories at the Coming Out Godless project, which share similar concerns, one of which can be found here.

  • It depends on what’s more important to you, companionship, or the truth.

  • Polly

    Thanks Teleprompter!

  • MountainHumanist

    I can certainly sympathize with this man. I’m a former (part-time) ordained, fundamentalist, “Bible-believing,” minister who is now an atheist. Even though my wife knows that I’m no longer a fundamentalist (and she isn’t either — she’s at least a Deist), she doesn’t know I’m an atheist and I struggle about “coming out” to her and my community, as well as my kids (one of whom is devout and the other is probably a Deist).

    To compound the issue, I work as a small-town newspaper editor and I wonder if coming out would cause me to lose my job. I’m rather a loner so I don’t get a sense of community from the church so no loss there.

    The church itself is waaaay too fundamentalist and my wife and son are both starting to see it. I hope to continue to provide reality-based answers to life’s problem in an effort to “spread the good news” of naturalistic atheism — whether that means full blown “coming out” or not remains to be seen. To borrow Christian terminology, I hope my “witness” may help my family “see the light.” Perhaps this will lead to a life change that may include an exit from journalism and a pursuit of a degree in comparative religion or psychology. I would like to teach, write and speak about the psychology of religious belief especially given the fact that I marvel over my 180-degree deconversion.

    On the other hand, we live in a university town and there is a lot more support for atheists then might otherwise be expected. I obviously have no easy answer for the writer and I feel like I’m hijacking the post by spewing my issues but it is cathartic to write about it.

    Although I know I’m hypocritical, my first inclination is to advise him to come out.

    Thanks to Hemant for providing this forum and a sense of community. You are an inspiration to me daily, friend.

  • Lost Left Coaster

    Whoa, I read that second to last paragraph in Cary’s response. Pretty lame.

  • One of the things I found telling in the Racialicious comments was the oft-repeated observation that while there are atheist- and agnostic-friendly congregations that will provide many of the community and social networking benefits of a church, these congregations are mostly white. One of the functions of black churches is to provide a refuge from white-centered society — a mostly-white congregation (or secular group!) can’t provide that refuge. If you’re black and deciding whether or not to leave your church, losing access to that refuge is a consideration that a white person wouldn’t have.

  • B

    If he considers himself to be Jesus-admiring… why can he not still attend the church? Some folks including Dawkins have spoke of themselves as “Atheist’s for Jesus” in the sense that much of the new testament actually has some decent moral teachings, and the character Jesus is an admirable hero.

    I’m not familiar with church, regardless of melanin content. Would congregation members be offended if a so-called “Atheist/Agnostic for Jesus” regularly attended the services?

  • John Larberg

    If they were good Christians they would accept you either way, but I fear that the word “heathen” might be thrown around. Depends where you live actually. The big non-denominational(sp?) churches or rather warehouses in southern california seem to accept everyone as long as you’re down with Jesus regardless of your religion or lack there of.

    It is horrible that a view point on something so abstract could make you unwelcome in a community like as if you were a murderer.

  • Nice commentary, Hemant, but

    the cultural issues that are a part of the black atheist’s quandary:

    As an agnostic theist myself, I tend to observe that both orthodox theists and atheists tend to see a black-and-white world: someone is either one or the other. This person self-identifies as an agnostic, it’s not for you or anyone else to claim him as one of your own.

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