Ask Richard: Atheist Gets Entangled in a Church April 9, 2010

Ask Richard: Atheist Gets Entangled in a Church

Note: When letter writers sign with their first names instead of a pseudonym or nickname, I randomly change their name for added anonymity.

Is it dangerous to join a church out of pure social interest?

This weekend, I attended a very small conservative church with a friend of mine. The women wear scarves over their head, and it is taught that men are servants to God, and women are servants to men. This was mentioned twice at the sermon. The church is very small and in a bible belt state, and not part of a larger denomination. It borders on being a cult, as most of the members are related in some way.

I went there this weekend, one thing led to another, and a friend was my “witness” as I professed giving my soul up to Jesus and the Lord. I felt very coerced into the whole thing, and my interest in seeing what sort of culture exists in this small congregation got me in over my head.

Where do I proceed from here? I know too many of the people – from being secular friends – to back out and not have them chastise me and try to ‘save’ me again. Is it wrong to go to this church socially, and lie to their faces, just to gain knowledge of the workings of this small cult-like church? Is there any knowledge to be gained, or am I playing some sort of dangerous game with my mind? I do not wish to be brainwashed, but take it from me – two days have already been very detrimental to my atheism.


Dear Brad,

The way you describe being curious about the culture and workings of this church with a kind of intellectual detachment, you sound as if cultural anthropology is a hobby of yours. Well, there’s nothing wrong with that. I know a guy named Hemant Mehta who had a similar curiosity, and he turned it into an excellent book. Your mistake was to investigate a church too close to your home, with people whom you know. Now you’re wondering how you can disengage yourself from their church with the least amount of disappointment or offense to them.

But the question arises whether or not you actually want to disengage from it. I hear both a difficulty in being assertive, and a little uncertainty about your own beliefs. Maybe you simply have a hard time saying “no” to your friends, and so you felt pressured into making that ritual commitment. Some church services can be very emotionally compelling or manipulative, and some people can get swept up in it in ways that feel coerced or less than voluntary.

Maybe you’re just lonely. I can certainly understand that, but there are other ways to remedy that without the entanglements that you are describing.

On the other hand, you also sound like you are not sure that you can keep your wits about you, and that you will somehow be seduced into really becoming a believer. You speak of playing a dangerous game in your mind and not wanting to be brainwashed, saying that the exposure so far has been detrimental to your atheism.

If in your own mind you are very clear, settled and confident about your atheistic views, then you’re not at any risk to end up believing something that you don’t want to believe. But if you are ambiguous in your position, or if to some extent you want to believe what they believe, then by hanging around there you will probably get what you want. That is, after all, what they do there. They practice on each other, convincing each other to believe.

So the first thing to do is to know your own mind, and then to make up your mind. If you want to get away from this group, then given that you have some difficulty asserting yourself, I recommend that your best course is to quietly back away. Disappear for a while. Take a vacation. Out of sight is out of mind. When you come back home, don’t go to more meetings, and don’t bring up the subject with anybody. If and only if a member whom you know invites you to attend again, say “Thanks, but I decided that I’m not interested,” and then change the subject. Do not volunteer any further details or reasons. Your responses should be neutral, bland and uninteresting, supplying nothing against which they can argue. The less you say the better. You must bore them away. One or two might persist, but if you always respond with the minimum, being flat and opaque, they’ll eventually give up.

Yes, you might have to pay some kind of social penalty. They might accept your decision, or they might chastise you or try to save you again, but I think it will be worth whatever awkward or uncomfortable moments you have to face to get out of this self-set trap of pretending. If they reject your friendship over this, then frankly such agenda-laden friends are not much of a loss. You can find better friends.

The longer you wait the harder it will be. Better that they are disappointed now than really angered later, if they find that you have been deceiving them for a long time in order to observe them as if they were rain forest aborigines.

As for your ethical question, “Is it wrong to go to this church socially, and lie to their faces, just to gain knowledge of the workings of this small cult-like church?” Yes, I think it is wrong for you to mislead them, appearing to agree with them just to satisfy your intellectual curiosity, or just to have some company, if that is all it is. There’s no need to confess that to them, just stop doing it.

For the longer term Brad, begin to find ways to nurture more self-confidence so that you can have friendships without having to please people by going along with things you’d rather not do, and making commitments you’d rather not make. You might benefit from taking a course on assertion, so that you don’t let “one thing lead to another,” as happened in the church. Then you can be intellectually curious about what people do, but still be able to have boundaries and keep whatever limits of involvement you feel are appropriate for you. Eventually, you will be comfortable and self-assured, and able to frankly tell people what you believe and don’t believe. You will have attracted friends who accept you as you are, so no one has to pretend in order to gain the approval of anyone else.


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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Brian E

    Just tell them you’re gay.

  • Heidi

    Richard, you always give great advice. 🙂

    @Brad: I don’t have a lot to add to what Richard said. I don’t think you should go ahead with this under false premises. It’s not fair to you, and it’s not fair to them. For me, personally, belief is not an option. I could no more believe in the Christian god than I could believe in Xenu and the aliens. You need to ask yourself if you can believe, and if you want to believe. If you can’t say yes to both of those questions, you need to get out now.

  • Women cover their heads and are servants to men? You heard this twice and didn’t walk out? Go ahead and bury yourself in that church, Brad. The rest of us are trying to run a civilization.

  • @ Lorelei, it’s creepy as all hell, isn’t it?

    I think maybe if Brad wants to renounce his atheism and become religious, then it might be better to start at a slightly lower level of crazy and misogyny. If I were magically transplanted into his place right now, I would explore other churches before making a decision. Doubting atheism is one thing, but moving directly from nonbelief to a cultish setting seems to be everything except conducive to sanity. After looking around at all the options, he will understand himself better and be able to make the best decision for himself.

  • Heidi

    Good catch, Lorelei. I was so disturbed at the idea of allowing oneself to be bullied into a religion that I forgot he’d even said that. Never mind what I said before, then. Why in the world would anyone actually want to socialize with people like that? Do they have different rules for brown people than for the lily white, too?

  • littlejohn

    No. No. No. There are limits.
    If the only social club in your neighborhood was the Ku Klux Klan, would you join?
    What, exactly, is the difference?
    Serious. What is the diffference?
    I understand you don’t want them to hate or shun you, but you should have thought of that before you joined. The only morally decent thing is to quit. Make up whatever excuse you need, but you have to quit.

  • Darwin’s Light Saber

    Well since he’s clearly susceptible to Jedi Mind Tricks, let me try this:

    This is not the church your looking for.

  • numsix

    Get out before they start serving Kool-Aid.

  • J. Allen

    cults are not good for you

  • prospera


    Thank you for posting this one. It made me think. Your advice is always very level-headed and insightful.


    Just going by what you wrote in your letter, it sounds to me like being socially accepted by those around you is more important to you than being true to who you really are. There is nothing wrong with that, and contrary to what others try to tell you, I think many people can identify with that more than they are are willing to admit.

    And as far as women being submissive to men, most Christian churches preach that – the way this particular church chose to word it does not necessarily make them a “cult.” You would have to find out more information about the church and decide for yourself. But then again, what is a cult? Every religious group could be called a cult in one way or another by other religions or non-believers.

    I understand your dilemma, and I wish you the best with whatever you decide. I, myself, would try to find a way to ease out of the group without too much drama.

    Know that even if you decide to stay in the church and continue lying about your beliefs, it doesn’t make you a bad person. Heck, that would be no different than most of the Christians I know.

  • gmcfly

    This is some scary stuff — you’re in a cult!

    Seriously, bullying people to commit to a belief? Preying on individuals who don’t have a lot of outside friends? A small church that doesn’t belong to a larger denomination, with some out-of-the-norm beliefs?

    No no no. Go to a larger church — there ought to be many nearby — and get your warm fuzzies there.

    If you get any trouble from your church “friends” that’s just another sign that they don’t care about you as an individual! Honey, they were doing all right before you got there, and they’ll be fine after you leave.

  • muggle

    Run, do not walk to the nearest exit. But that’s just my take on it.

  • Killer Bee

    Is it wrong to go to this church socially, and lie to their faces

    There’s nothing healthier for a relationship than a sack full of lies to fertilize the soil out of which mutual understanding can grow. Also, should you run short of funds, you can dip into the collection plate as it’s passed on to you any given Sunday morning. Think of it as stop-gap research funding until you win the Nobel prize for sociology.

  • Bill

    “I went there this weekend, one thing led to another, and a friend was my “witness” as I professed giving my soul up to Jesus and the Lord” – is this a poe?! Seriously,if you went along as part of a social scene and ended up ‘giving your soul to Jesus’ then what kind of atheist are you? You were a religion-leaning agnostic at most. But to be more sympathetic (sorry) -just run and never go back

  • I completely agree with Lorelei.

    And as far as those “friends” go, if they can’t accept someone not being exactly as they are, what kind of friends are they anyway?

  • As a compromise with my wife, I attended (and participated) in a Baptist church for a couple of years. (We stopped going about a year ago and now are totally church free). My wife was raised within a church and thought it important to raise the kids within a church. I went along for marriage harmony. We did all the expected things (Sunday sermons, Wednesday night church-led bible study, and another night during the week for adult small group bible study). We each volunteered for things to help in the operation of the church. The only thing we didn’t do is tithe at the full 10%. I have to admit that I had a bit of fun at the adult small group bible studies with my very subtle comments. I was always respectfully VERY subtle, though. I learned all about what they believed. It is in small group where one really learns what people believe. Anyway, after about two years of this and increased pressure from the church to dramatically up our tithing, I finally put my foot down and said I wasn’t going anymore. I told my wife she could keep going if she wanted to. She chose not to go. She was tired of fighting with the kids to get them to go. Of course, I had some people ask to meet me for lunch to feel me out as to why I was leaving. The pastor of the church also wanted to talk to me about my decision. I meet with everybody who wanted to talk. I had the pastor over to my house. Anyway, if you choose to get entangled within a church, expect to spend some effort to get detangled from the church. In my case, the pastor gave up pretty quickly once I explained to him that I didn’t believe in either an afterlife or the inerrancy of the bible.

  • Hybrid

    “Brad”, let me guess, was it a Church of Christ?

    “…two days have already been very detrimental to my atheism.”

    If they’re giving you good reason to believe as they believe, then I say go for it. The day that someone discloses some good evidence that validates Joseph Smith, Xenu, Jesus, or Zeus is the day that I accept that reality and jump on the bandwagon.

    By the way, be sure to get back to us with the evidence, when this gets out you’ll be responsible for saving thousands (millions? BILLIONS?) of souls… and as an added bonus I’ll order my wife to make sandwiches and pie for everyone! Hooray!!

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