The Advantages of Pretending to be a Christian February 24, 2010

The Advantages of Pretending to be a Christian

I got this email yesterday from a North Carolina resident:

Over the past couple of years I have slowly realized, that… I don’t believe in the spirit in the sky with magical powers. This is all fine and dandy, except I literally live in the middle of the bible belt. Nearly my entire community it Christian, I have 6 churches in walking distance of my house. I am constantly being invited to church and to youth functions. I do not know how to respond to these invitations, it seems everything that I try always is negative in some sort of way. I have tried to just tell them no thank you but that just encourages them to pester you about why you wont go. I have even told someone that I am atheist and that is why I will not go, but this returns the worst result of all. They then make it there personal mission to “save” me. I don’t live in a very accepting community.

What an awful situation to be in — you (almost) wish you were a Christian so that life would become that much easier.

In some cases, that’s what the atheists have done.

They’re pretending to be Christians so that they can fit in with the crowd, as this couple mentions at the Freakonomics blog:

… We found by experience that if we were truthful about not being regular church attenders, the play dates suddenly ended. Thus started the faking of the religious funk.

It seemed silly but it’s all very serious business down here. We don’t go to church or teach [our] children one belief is “right” over another. We expose them to every kind of belief and trust that they will one day settle in to their very own spirituality. However, for the sake of friends and neighbors, we pretend we are Christians. We try not to lie but rather not to disclose unnecessary information.

That sort of deception can start at a young age, too. You discover it’s easier to go along with the crowd instead of just calling religion out on its bullshit, which could just get you into trouble with the adults.

There was a great interview on Tavis Smiley the other day with actor Mark Ruffalo — Ruffalo talks about how he pretended to get “knocked out by the spirit of the Lord” just to appease his family:

(The ending of the clip is awesome)

You have to wonder how many fake Christians there are out there — people who secretly doubt their faith or have cast it aside altogether, but stick with the guise just so they can be part of a community.

It would be wonderful if those “Christians” could just be honest.

It would be great if they realized that their personal convictions were worth so much more than the Christian communities they want to be a part of — that’s easier said than done, of course.

But imagine if it happened. How much better would life be for those people who have to currently lie in order to be accepted by the “true” Christians?

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  • Roger

    I have often toyed with the notion of faking Christianity insofar as going to a church, just to have some sense of fellowship. Some form of connection to other human beings.

    I don’t have anyone local that I would consider a friend, and I wouldn’t even know how to find them at this point. But by going to church, I could instantly be surrounded by people who will (at the very least) pretend to be interested in me and care about my well-being.

    If there were some kind of gathering of atheists/non-theists, I would certainly be more likely to attend that, but there’s nothing like that around here (and I don’t think it really exists anywhere). And so, failing that, I keep coming back to the notion of going to church just to have an excuse to be around people.

  • NewEnglandBob

    No need for deception. The North Carolina resident should just tell his annoying neighbors to stop pestering him or he will start eating local babies.

  • King Awesomeson

    I work retail right now and I deal with hundreds of people a day on a regular day. I live in North Carolina as well. I have only three churches in walking distance though. Downtown Winston-Salem. Anyway, As you can bet I get customers coming up and some of them are just whacky people that want to talk about anything to anyone that will listen. Some of them are super-christians and don’t think it is at all intrusive or rude to ask me about my religious affiliation. Most of the time I just nod and hum slightly. Not saying yes but not saying no either. I’m not ashamed of being an atheist but if this person is jabbering about jesus and asks me if I’m a christian and wants to buy a computer and a television and some furniture, you bet I won’t say “Jesus is just an amalgamation of a dozen previous people in various religions and every christian holiday is adapted from a pagan holiday.” I’m going to do what I was taught when in a tough position: smile and nod.

  • QuestionAuthority

    The problem is that they just don’t quit.
    They also use shunning as a pressure tool, which is every effective if you’re in a mostly xtain area. It works very well on children and teens, too. We all know how kids want to “belong” and be accepted. Well, they know it too and use it on kids. Most kids are relatively defenseless aginst this tactic, especially if it is used on them by teachers or other adults they look up to for guidance.

    I have even been in the position of being told by a manager in the workplace that “witnessing” is protected speech, but my counter-arguments were not. I called it “harassment,” and was told that it was “protected.” Esssentially, I had no right in the workplace to tell my co-worker to STFU and do his job. I was his supervisor at the time, BTW.

    So yeah, I know exactly what the e-mailer means.

  • Apsalar

    I went to a couple of meetings of the local Humanist society (I live in California), and there was a good sized group and they were all very nice. But they were generally a lot older than me, and it just wasn’t really my thing. I am glad that there is such a group, though.

  • I often wonder how many “fake” clergy (priests and pastors) are out there. I would imagine that there are many

  • Donna

    This is nothing new and certainly very common. My mother-in-law, a holocaust survivor, faked Christianity to fit in after she moved to the US. Her mother-in-law never knew.

    In many places, you have to profess belief to get your kids into decent schools, or to get a job. I’m convinced Obama is one of the fakers. (In his autobiography Dreams of My Father he makes it clear that he only joined a church in Chicago after someone advised him that he would get nowhere as a community organizer without one.)

    And that doesn’t even count the number of people who consider themselves Christians in some general sense but don’t believe most of the basic tenants of the religion. I’m sure you can find many church leaders in this category.

  • justanotherjones

    LOL @ “and at was my first acting gig.”

    But sad that little kids have to go through that, hopefully more eventually see it, like Mr. Ruffalo does, for what it was.

  • I’ve lived in North Carolina. It has an open carry law, that is, you can carry a handgun openly on your belt without a permit. I found that prevented arguments.

  • Beijingrrl

    I think that’s a horrible situation for kids to grow up in and I’d be spending a lot of time trying to figure out how to move somewhere my kids wouldn’t have to see me lie and comprise myself. I know my kids are going to learn more by what I do than by what I say. I really feel sorry for this whole family.

    My husband does contract work, so our family leaves our home base to live in another city and/or country for around a year every so often. It recently looked like we might end up in Dallas, which I was somewhat dreading, but happily we’ve just arrived in Montreal for the next year. It’s lovely being in a place where so many are openly atheists.

    But if we had ended up in Dallas, I would have made sure we lived near one of the secular homeschooling groups or started one of my own. I know a lot of people think people homeschool because they are religious, but a lot of us homeschool partly to keep our kids from just the kind of religious snubbing this family has experienced. I know my kids will never lose playdates because of their lack of religion, as even the religious homeschooling families in our group are open-minded enough to have joined a secular group.

  • Richard

    Thanks for a great posting Hemant.

  • I live in NC, and I’ve pretended to be a Christian to cozy up to sales people I’m looking to get a deal from.

  • Jenny

    I’ve been in the same boat. I kind of would like to get together and be groovy once a week or so and sing some very singable songs and enjoy some nice artwork and have a little time to think about Big Ideas and socialize in a comfortable environment, like churchgoing provides, but without all the supernatural hullaballoo. Is it possible to found an Atheist Church? It seems anathema to call it “church” though. It would be great to get together, sing a Beatles song, talk about how it’s nice to be nice to each other, the kids sing the Wheels on the Bus, and we all have juice and donuts for twenty minutes while we arrange playdates, community service projects and weekend getaways.

  • VelvetStaccato

    I live in NC and I always say “No thanks!” to people (i.e. WalMart checkout clerk) who wish me a “blessed day” as I’m leaving the store. One COC (Check Out Chick) sees me coming and leaves her register, which is exactly the kind of customer service I want when I’m just out buying a bottle of Motrin)! And then there are those days I deserve the equivalent of a workplace Academy Award when I just smile as my insides churn at the sound of the voice telling me all about who knows who and who goes to which church (i.e. which is how “they” weed out us godless, children-eating heathens!!) It’s always a fun day with religion here in NC. (Oh, and there are four churches on one road near my home.)

  • Angie

    I could never bring myself to masquerade as a Christian, because (1) I have poor acting skills, and (2) my principles wouldn’t allow it.

    Having said that, I won’t begrudge a nonbeliever who masquerades as a Christian in a heavily religious social environment. For people who are surrounded by overzealous Christians, it may the best strategy for them to prevent harassment, proselytizing, and general social tension.

  • MH

    I live in New England almost 1/3 of people are not religious and the most of the rest don’t attend church. So pretending to be Christian would be kind of pointless.

  • When I first moved to grad school, I considered faking Christian and going to a United Church (which are pretty progressive), but I just couldn’t do it. Thankfully, I found Unitarian Universalism, where atheists and agnostics and whatevers are accepted 🙂

  • Richard P

    A friend of mine used to hang out with church groups. I knew he had little respect for the church, he was very agnostic.
    I asked him once why he went. He said, to get laid. Church girls are very horny. All that pent up frustration, just looking for an outlet.
    So I guess it worked for him.

  • That clip of Mark Ruffalo was so great! I had the same thought as a kid, that I must be the anti-Christ or possessed by demons or something because I wasn’t feeling “the spirit” that other people in the congregation seemed to feel. Laughter really is the best way to deal with these things.


  • DrMatt

    A couple of things here:

    Kaleena asks how many are fake clergy. As a former Gideon who knows many men of the cloth, I would guess about 75%. These are good people looking to do good things, but majored in theology instead of social work.

    Modern Girl mentions finding a Unitarian Universalist Church. I did too. They were, quite literally, a lifesaver for my daughter.

    When I say I have a church I am involved in, that seems to be enough. Only once was I pressed to admit to UU and the evangelist replied in horror, “They deny the trinity!” No matter where you go, you will be a heretic or apostate elsewhere.

  • Even though I’m a life-long atheist, I did attend a Baptist church for a couple of years when my wife wanted to “do religion” for a while. We stopped going over a year ago but I remember one funny episode towards the end when we only sporadically attended. One member of my “small group” asked me why I wasn’t at church more often. At the time I felt it easier to tell him “I haven’t been going because I’ve been too busy worshiping Satan”. I honestly think that comment was easier for him to process than telling him I was an atheist.

  • CybrgnX

    At 7 I became an alter boy but even then I never BELIEVED. At bible class many things seemed wrong. But everyone around me was devote, so I pretended. I continued to pretend until my mother died (mothers are special people).
    I think I would be able to pretend again but I’d rather start a fight, more fun!!! But if for some reason (good job) I needed to pretend then I’d go ALL the way and be a buybull thumping extremest pushing the real crap (OT) into their faces. Most don’t even know a lot of OT stuff

  • Ron in Houston

    There are lots of clergy that are somewhere on the agnostic-atheist continuum especially in more liberal denominations. I think many clergy get into that line of work more for humanist reasons than theological reasons.

    Honestly, I wonder why folks find this so surprising. Talk to a lot of Jewish people and they’ll pretty much admit to being “Cultural Jews.” I’ve known for a long time that there are loads of “Cultural Christians.”

    As a matter of fact, I’d be willing to bet there are a lot more “Cultural Christians” in places like the bible belt that in more liberal areas.

  • Dianna

    This is why I always cringe when atheists get nasty with Xtians online, or elswhere, for that matter. There are always those in the background who are silently in doubt, and when we make ourselves look ugly to them then they have no one to turn to for answers except for those in their religious world.

  • Revyloution

    DrMatt and Kaleena,

    Watch for publications from Daniel Dennent. He is currently working on a project documenting non-believers who work as priests and pastors.

    Im anxiously waiting for it. I cant wait to read the juicy bits. It kinda boggles my mind that you can lead a church as an atheist. It’s almost con-man wrong, but with the counter argument that churches do so much good in their community.

  • Epistaxis

    They’re pretending to be Christians so that they can fit in with the crowd

    No, it’s worse: they’re doing it so their children can fit in.

  • Miko

    “One genius of the system we live under is that the strategies it requires to survive it from day to day are exactly the opposite of what is required to change it.”
    –Catharine MacKinnon

    This was originally a feminist exploration of the strategies women adopt under patriarchy, but the point of the quotation generalizes to just about any system of hierarchical domination. Epistaxis hits the nail on the head: “they’re doing it so their children can fit in.” They do it for the same reason that FGM is practiced primarily by mothers: because, even if they realize that it’s individually bad for their children, the penalties for bucking the social mores are seen as worse.

    We need to remember that we live in a horribly oppressive society. (This is true of all societies in the world today, so I don’t feel the need to add a caveat with regard to national borders. While it’s true that some are better than others, this is a remark at the level of Churchill’s “democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried” — certainly true, but not in any way a justification of the status quo.) However, the burden does not fall equally on all of us. Thus, it becomes doubly important for those of us lucky enough to possess a modicum more of liberty than our neighbors to suspend our day-to-day thinking occasionally and to make a personal sacrifice for the purpose of changing things. (N.B. petitioning a government does not count here, since the only reason it’s still legal is because it doesn’t work.)

  • @Epistaxis & @Miko,

    In my case, my wife (through pressure from some friends) wanted us to attend church when our kids got to a certain age. She never cared that we didn’t ever go before. In retrospect, it was perhaps fortunate that my wife’s friends got us to go to an evangelical Baptist church because the congregation’s wacky ideas on heaven and hell (and demons and the devil) were so bizarre that even my wife eventually agreed that it was a bad influence on the kids. Interestingly, my kids (particularly the older one) is probably now inoculated against religion belief although only time will tell. I think everyone in my nuclear family is now relieved that we don’t go to church any more.

    I did find the Christian small group meetings interesting in finding out what these people believed about the world. Wacky but very interesting.

  • I’m pretty much in the same boat as Angie.

    I don’t want to lie to my family, and I don’t think I could honestly get away with lying to them.

    I know some day they’ll find out, but until then, I’ll just not really say anything about it.

  • Gib

    I think the atheists pretending to be christians need some sort of sign to recognise each other without being found out.

    The first guy should draw a christian fish. The second guy draws legs on it….

  • RG

    You shouldn’t have given away the punchline.. that kind of ruins a great story.

  • Darlene

    I live in a small town in NC. We have over 100 churches representing over 30 denominations.

    At first we turned down invitations to church with a smile and a “oh, we are homechurchers.”

    As we made friends, we just came out. It was an astoundingly nonevent. My husband is military, and no one bothers him. My teen lost one friend, but really, who wants friends like that anyway? We homeschool, and we found a group of teens that is very inclusive and fun, and well worth an hours drive.

    It helps that we present ourselves as pretty darn certain of our position, without apology. And to anyone who offers to pray for me or my soul, I tell them that if I don’t convert it must mean their god either doesn’t listen to their prayers or isn’t all that concerned with my soul 🙂 that annoys them enough that they stop.

    A sense of humor and firm conviction helps. My husband and I talked about what message we would send to our child if we faked it, and it wasn’t a lesson we wanted to teach him. Losing friends is small compared to losing our self respect.

    It is not illegal to be an atheist. People might not like you, but better to be hated for what you are then loved for what you are not (I don’t remember who to attribute that quote to, sorry.)

    But then, I was raised to be rebellious. Not everyone is comfortable being different, while my dad taught me that the worst thing to be was the same.

  • Tricia

    What is up with NC??? I have never lived down south before, admittedly. I am from Idaho of all places, but having lived in California and Washington state, and Germany, I was truly never in my life drowing in culture shock until I moved here. I guess I truly know what they mean by the “bible belt” now. The thing I am trying to figure out now is how to be friends with people without having to lie about my religious beliefs. Its so unbelievably heavily pushed upon you here. Its true even my son was looked down upon and told that he was going to “hell” because he doesn’t go to church/beleive in God. (He just turned 12). I’ve never had everyone I encounter assume I go to church and invite me to theirs. Salespeople..and even in a job interview! Also the person in charge of the residency program who heavily pushes me to go attend her church. Its like, if I don’t go to church, everyone in the hospital is going to ensure that I don’t et a pay raise…its just a feeling I get that’s all!

  • Sam

    I’m a life-long resident of NC, Charlotte area, and I’ve been out of both the gay and Atheist closet since 1986. Anyone who gets to know me more than two weeks will know my story whether they like it or not. The thought of ever walking into church to “worship” makes my stomach sour and my disposition angry. I’m sorry for those that have to fake it, and for them, I’ll gladly be out, loud, and proud. I am a damn good nurse and my co-workers and supervisors trust me AND they know I’m an Atheist and queer as the day is long (no, I’m not a flamer.) I violently hated myself and lived a wretched lie until the age of 25, hiding my homosexuality. I will not go back to that horrible state of mind.

  • CybrgnX

    I found out that I am into heavy self-abuse.
    I’m a raving atheist moving to NC!!!!

    Don’t ask I don’t know what a ‘raving atheist’ is either. I probably just forgot to put the word ‘mad’ in between.

  • Hybrid

    Alabama is plenty bad, I try to keep a low profile and blend in. It’s surprisingly easy, the simple act of not outright disagreeing with most people makes them secure that you see things the way they do. “Nod and smile” along with plenty of “I can see that” and “maybe so” maneuvers save careers and family ties.

  • WK

    I had a pretty similar experience to Mr. Ruffalo.

    I was 12 or so and because of some reason or another that I already forgot, was prompted to go to the front during a faith healing. It was set up in a row, and she’d push someone over, they’d be caught and layed on the floor, then she’d go to the next person, and I was in the middle. When it came to be my time I was caught off balance a bit by the shove on the forehead but automatically regained it and for the longest second ever, noticed everyone staring at me and even heard a few gasps. I felt uncomfortable, and felt that something was wrong with me because the holy spirit didn’t enter me like it did everyone else before me, so I decided to fake it and collapsed, wriggling around for a few seconds.

    It wasn’t until much later that I realized that I didn’t feel any spirit flowing into me because there simply was no spirit and I was just too skeptical to get psyched out like everyone else there.

  • muggle

    You know, I don’t want to be judgmental here but they are part of a problem.

    They are a self-fulfilling prophecy. The Xians will hate me if I don’t pretend to be one of them. Maybe when there were only one or two and maybe there are a large population of theists who were that nasty. But that can only go so far until there’s to many Atheists to hate, gang up on.

    Catering to this mentality only feeds it and supports the very bigotry against you.

    Not to mention your prejudging of Christians. They’re not all like that. No, not even in the South. We’ve got to stop being afraid of each other and stop this nonsense.

    My daughter works for Catholic Charities and I belong to an on-line Christian Support Group, urged to join by a friend of mine (coincidentally she lives in NC though she comes from the North) with similiar health problems for the support of those with similar health problems and warily gave them a chance as she assured me that they had Atheists and they didn’t care about religion. It was all about support of the group. She urged me to join a live chat and give them a chance. I did, was openly Atheist on it and they were warm and friendly before I mentioned being Atheist and were just as much so afterwards. It was all about sharing like problems, a great many were from the South. And I’m glad to be a member of this group. No one has of yet preached to me and if one member does, I’m not going to judge the others by that. I have to concede that I was more prejudiced, by way of my wariness, than they were and they quickly put me at ease.

    We have to be more open and honest and stop prejudging theists in return. Nothing changes without outspokenness. Being in the closet is a personal choice and understandable and, yes, you still have the right to complain about the way things are that cause you to be afraid of coming out of the closet but if you want them to change for your kids, your grandkids or hopefully even in your life time, you have to speak up for that change.

  • UGG!

    I am so happy to have come across this site!! I am a mom, wife and chiropractor and it seems all of the people I meet expects every one of those titles to be crazy “on fire” for jesus. In order to preserve my career, support my family and not be an outcast (I live in MI), I go to church, have my daughter play with Christians and have even been pressured to–and attended–a bible study. I had to google all of the Q&A for the study because I was so clueless. I feel horrible subjecting my daughter to this, as I have never considered myself religious and really want her to know the real ‘me.’

    I find it refreshing to see how so many others struggle with this very real psyco-socio-economic problem.

    A suggestion to identify ourselves: I have found if you look around when everyone else bows their head for prayer, you find the ‘outcasts.’

    JeffP–I totally understand the interest in studying those people! It is fascinating! I talk to my husband all the time about how we cannot beleive that people really think that way. You said it perfect “Wacky, but interesting.” HA

  • Nancy in Dallas

    I wouldn’t recommend pretending you are a Christian if you are not, particularly if you have children. I think pretending could greatly undermine a child’s confidence in you as a parent. “Why do they tell me one thing and then pretend the other?”

    My husband and I were raised in the Episcopal Church but are Agnostic. We send our 8 year old to a secular school, but many of his core friends are doing their “First Communion” in the Catholic Church this year, and he is wondering why we don’t do something like that for him. He wonders why we aren’t Christian.

    We have taught him about various religions in a very non-judgmental way and have explained that we don’t feel we can just choose one religion and say that this is the only religion that is correct and everyone else is wrong. We explain that we don’t believe in many Christian beliefs, but that many kids at his school do, so he shouldn’t make fun of their beliefs. We explained that at some point in his life if he wants to explore different religions, we can do that with him.

    When his friends’ parents asked me what religion we were, I said that we were raised Christian but have decided not to practice a religion and are teaching our son to be tolerant of differing religious beliefs. I am hoping that so long as I am tolerant of their religion, but have clearly stated that I have CHOSEN not to be religious, that I will be OK. If they inquire as to why I am no longer Christian, I will be honest: I have learned about a lot of different religions, all trying to approach and explain the same thing, and don’t feel I could ever choose one teaching at the exclusion of others. I won’t get into details of what practices and beliefs I feel are offensive or what teachings I find- quite frankly – ludicrous, because that would likely be insulting.

    But I do feel an outsider. And I feel I could never really get close to one of my son’s friends, because in the back of my mind I’d keep thinking “How can you possibly believe this stuff?” “So do you just pick and choose, and that’s the way you can go to bed at night feeling comfortable calling yourself a Christian?”

  • CG

    Holy shit that is genius

  • Cali310

    You’re pretty brave. I am a black 23 yo female from Charlotte, raised Baptist and Episcopalian, but my education in STEM, interest in history along with a childhood of questioning eventually led me to become an atheist. Being a non believer in the South in the black community is extremely difficult because Christianity is big business and so ingrained in our culture. People associate Christianity with morality. So atheism = immorality, no real values. I even had a friend state that she thought atheists were evil. My family, friends don’t know I don’t believe in the Bible anymore. Strangers assume I’m a Christian. I’ve nodded in agreement when people use illogical theories like “women are extensions of men, bc Eve was made from Adam’s rib,” or “it’s Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve,” so blind that they don’t realize this mentality is oppressing them. Women not wanting to make more than their husbands, gay men trying to “pray the gay away”. I feel bad that my people are so brainwashed. I hate myself for not speaking up and feel trapped. I can’t believe people still believe in mythology and use a book written 1000s of years ago to “prove” that sexuality is a choice in place of science.

    Any advice would be appreciated

  • Cali310

    Great advice!

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