Dear Mr. Richard,
How are you? After reading your posts on Friendly Atheist I decided to contact you with a problem of my own. First a little history leading up to my dilemma. It has been a long, hard slog to were I am at now. I started as a somewhat skeptical, but otherwise convinced, believer in God and Christ. After I entered college I immersed in evolution wanting to make an informed decision about the subject. In the past 4 months since I started college 2 years ago I have abandoned the belief in God, or at least a personal God.
I have told no one of this change save a close friend. I still attend church because it is were my friends and family are. However, we have new preacher; a young guy in his late twenties. He has a family with a 3 year old daughter, a 1 year old son, and a third on the way. He has a Masters in Theology from Liberty University, so you know the type. He is a stereotypical Southern preacher: YEC, evolution-denier, Jesus freak, America is a Christian Nation, war on Christmas, how can atheists be so dumb as not to believe in an invisible superman.
I like him as a person, but I tend to avoid him lest I lose my composure. Well last week he preached a sermon entitled: How the Grinch, King Herod, and The Atheist (my emphasis) stole Christmas. I almost walked on stage to tell him just how full of bunk he was. My main problem is that he homeschools his little kids. Now I can’t stand, as a lover and defender of science, to see these kids brainwashed. Sorry for the long letter, but can you help me?
The most important step in problem solving is recognizing what is the actual problem.
I’m sure that in the past you have known many people with exactly the same religious beliefs, opinions about science, history, and politics, and attitudes toward atheists as does this new, young preacher. Previously those things didn’t annoy you so much, if at all, because you shared some of the beliefs, and you probably weren’t so keenly aware of the rest of it because it was all around you, and you were not on the receiving end.
But then he delivered that sermon vilifying atheists, and suddenly he was talking about you.
Welcome to the world in which we nonbelievers live. After a long time of deliberation, just four months ago you crossed a line between belief and non-belief. Because of that, many people on the belief side of the line will revile, slander, libel, despise, dismiss, and worst of all, shun you. All of that is because they fear you. Belief in an “invisible superman” as you put it, is difficult, fragile, and perishable, and doubt can be contagious. You, by merely existing, are seen as a threat.
But this preacher is not your problem.
Do not focus on him, or his ignorance, or his prejudice, and certainly not on his homeschooled kids. There’s nothing you can presently do about any of that. All of that is a distraction from your more painful and frightening actual problem:
The problem is the fact that you have only felt safe to tell one close friend of your change in belief, and you continue to go to church because that’s where all your friends and family are. You are living in a charade, being false, compromising your integrity in order to avoid losing their love. I fully, deeply understand that, but now it’s all resting on a crumbling foundation of deceit.
Sitting in church, gritting your teeth and churning your stomach while you listen to aggravating and insulting sermons like the one you described is probably not good for your health. You’ll eventually get sick, or you’ll have an outburst right there in the pew. You’ll have to stop going, and then your family will ask you why. Excuses and cover stories won’t work for long, and when you finally tell them the truth, they may take it fairly well or not well at all. There will be tension at the very least, or at the worst, shunning which is a cruel and revolting practice.
It will be better if you have control of this process rather than letting it come unraveled on its own. Keep that one friend, and develop a new circle of friends where you can be yourself, and you don’t have to pretend to be something you’re not. Maybe there’s a secular kind of group at the college. You will need the support of these new accepting friends during whatever trouble there is with your family and your friends at church.
After you have your social safety net in place, gradually begin to share your views more openly with your loved ones, and only go wherever you actually want to be. Remain willing to love and accept them even during any upset they are having about you. That of course does not mean that you have to accept abuse. Just make it clear that your love for them is not conditional on their beliefs matching your beliefs, and you hope that their love for you can be free of that condition too. For there to be love, you only need them to treat you decently, just as you are treating them.
Hopefully your family and the truest of your friends will adjust after some time, and will resume a loving relationship with you. It may be difficult for some of them. Be patient. Demonstrate the qualities you hope to see in them.
College is a time of enormous change for people. While much of it can be exciting, it’s also full of upheaval and turmoil because as they discover new things, they have to discard old things. Sometimes relationships are challenged, not just ideas. With patience, and with your efforts concentrated on the actual problem rather than distractions, I think you will be able to preserve what is precious, both love and your integrity.