Joining a bible study group for the friends, not the faith - is it okay?
January 7, 2014 7:25 PM   Subscribe

I graduated from college about 8 months ago and have since moved back to my home town to work. In those 8 months, I haven't really spent any time with folks my own age (outside of a little online dating), and to be frank, I've been lonely. By a crazy coincidence, I ran into a girl I knew in high school at a coffee shop recently, we caught up over lunch, and she invited me to her "20 somethings" bible group. Not being a religious guy, I was expecting to leave with a bad taste in my mouth and a funny story but...

I actually really liked it. Not the religious part, that still seems silly to me.

But everybody was so insanely warm and welcoming to me. I was around people my own age I could easily talk to and I felt immediately accepted. Bonus - there were quite a few charming, beautiful women there and my acquaintance from school and I have definitely bonded a bit over the time spent together. I even got invited to an after-service football watching party where I met even more people and had a crazy wholesome time.

If I'm being honest with myself, I felt a sense of belonging and acceptance I haven't felt in a very, very long time. But even though I was honest with my acquaintance about my religious views (basically agnostic who has never really thought about it that much and who felt organized religion seemed manipulative and brainwash-y on the whole), she still seemed adamant that I join them at the next service.

I feel like maybe everybody was laying it on a bit thick to convert me, but their positivity and inclusion never seemed phony to me. And I really want to hang out with them again.

But is it wrong to try and be a part of this VERY JESUS FOCUSED community of awesome people my age if I myself have pretty much zero interest in Jesus, the bible, etc?

Feeling really conflicted about this...
posted by johnpoe50 to Human Relations (42 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
I think as long as you are honest with them about your religious views and your reasons for being there, you should go for it.
posted by BurntHombre at 7:29 PM on January 7, 2014 [3 favorites]

I feel like maybe everybody was laying it on a bit thick to convert me, but their positivity and inclusion never seemed phony to me.

They can be trying to convert you and also genuinely be positive and inclusive. Just because they're religious, doesn't mean they're jerks.

Look, you've been upfront with them, so there doesn't seem to be any ethical quandary. If you want to attend, then attend.

But why attend a bible study group if you don't want to study the bible? You like the people, and not so much the bible. So why not arrange another social, non-bible event with those same people, now you've met them. Then you get to hang out with them, have fun, and not feel disingenuous about it.
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 7:31 PM on January 7, 2014 [8 favorites]

My guess is they will enjoy the challenge. I am a (very liberal, theologically and politically) person of faith, and I've had a number of much more religious friends over the years who looooved to debate with me and try to "convert" me. It was actually great: it broadened my horizons and made me think more seriously about my faith. Plus, as in your case, they were such genuine, warm people. As long as you're not being dishonest about your intentions and beliefs - and it sounds like you're fine there - I don't see an ethical problem with this. If anything, you might get bored of everyone trying to convert you all the time.
posted by goodbyewaffles at 7:33 PM on January 7, 2014 [7 favorites]

As an atheist, I've attended Bible study groups. The Bible and the histories of Judaism and Christianity are pretty interesting even if you don't believe there's anything supernatural involved. As long as you're not going there intent on disrupting their study of the Bible it doesn't seem wrong to me.
posted by XMLicious at 7:33 PM on January 7, 2014 [19 favorites]

It's fine to be friends with them and watch football but it seems a little disingenuous to show up at Bible study more than a few times if you're not interested and don't see yourself becoming interested in the content. It seems like taking advantage to me.
posted by bleep at 7:39 PM on January 7, 2014 [2 favorites]

Speaking as a person who is part of a community of faith very much like you describe, I would have no problem whatsoever with you joining in the social events. I think you should definitely be honest about what you do/don't believe, and assume in good faith that they are being honest and genuine about what they do/don't believe. If they have thus far included you, and continue to do so, I see no problem. Imagining people complexly is so important - even if you disagree with many of the things they believe, becoming friends and seeing them as complex people (who happen to share a faith that you don't share) is NEVER bad.
posted by guster4lovers at 7:42 PM on January 7, 2014 [8 favorites]

I think it's okay (speaking as a religious person) as long as you are not being argumentative. Bible study is not the place to debate people on their faith.

Personally I wouldn't want someone who believed my beliefs were silly in my group. I get attacked enough elsewhere and there might come a time when it becomes awkward.
posted by Aranquis at 7:43 PM on January 7, 2014 [2 favorites]

If you told them how you feel and they are cool with it, and you go in with an open mind and return the acceptance, I don't see a problem with it. Part of the reason people go to church and participate in religion is the sense of community it brings.

But if you plan on hitting on women in the group and turning it into a dating service, I would say that's more dishonest and you shouldn't do it. I mean, if you can't find any sort of reason to go other than the fact that there are nice women you're attracted to, don't go... especially because, I am guessing these women are just nice to everyone and not flirting with you. Just make sure that "Everyone was really welcoming" isn't code for "pretty women smiled and were nice to me," that's all I'm saying.
posted by AppleTurnover at 7:50 PM on January 7, 2014 [7 favorites]

I don't think it's wrong to join this group (and wider social circle) if you're not a believer, but, I see one obvious problem here:

You're building a social group for yourself that is strongly dedicated to something you have no interest in.

Sure there are all these attractive women. What's going to happen when you start dating one of them and discover that she expects you to attend church every Sunday? What if you put up with that despite your lack of faith, and you get married, and she wants a big church wedding including ceremony elements that you strongly disagree* with? Will you agree on other important life stuff? And at what point do you become someone pretending to be someone you're not?

I mean, if you genuinely see eye to eye with these folks in all other regards, sure, whatever, you're not hurting anyone by going to a religious meeting you don't strictly believe in.

Also, is it even fun to go to a group meeting for something you don't even like?

Is there a possibility that there are other interest groups in your area that actually have to do with interests of yours you wouldn't have to fake?

*I'm specifically thinking of the part of the Catholic wedding ceremony where the couple vows to have children and raise them Catholic, but YMMV whether your denomination has anything like this.
posted by Sara C. at 7:54 PM on January 7, 2014 [26 favorites]

First up, they are trying to convert you. As long as you keep coming to the social events and the bible studies they will keep at it. If after a while you have not accepted their beliefs but keep showing up for the social events then it will become awkward and they will feel used and might even start to hint that they feel like they are being used.

I'm sure they are genuine in their openness and fellowship but there is a point to it which is belief in their religion. If the latter does not occur then there will be problems down the road.

I think your best bet is to not go to bible study and only go to the social events for as long as it takes to build up strong enough friendships that you can begin organizing social events outside of the religious affiliation. If you are the one doing the inviting and organizing then it won't feel as manipulative or like you are using them for your own gain.
posted by bfootdav at 8:02 PM on January 7, 2014 [12 favorites]

I don't your desire to hang out with this group is taking advantage, and they may not necessarily be looking to proselytize. To say that's true of all religious groups is pretty general.

My church (Episcopalean) welcomes everyone of all faiths, and it doesn't matter why you're there, you're a part of the community and you are welcome without question. Our vicar has never asked anyone what their faith is, you can call yourself whatever you want and take part in the church in the way that you want. If you just want to come help tutor the kids after school or come after the homily to say hi, or maybe come help clear ground for a community garden, then that's fine. If you want to come to church for dinner on Christmas Eve because you can't go home for the holidays and it gets lonely around then, then that's great. To me, religion isn't all about studying the text and the ritual, it's about the community and living a loving life and embracing others who need help or who just want to be part of a group of supportive people.

Keep hanging out with these folks. They sound great. Why can't a group of people who happen to be religious want you to be around because they enjoy your company?
posted by noonday at 8:04 PM on January 7, 2014 [11 favorites]

Oh yeah, the follow up comments, particularly from Sara C. reminds me of something I read recently (from PEW Research Foundation, I think). The group with one of the highest divorce rates of any demographic is those who marry someone not from their faith background. If I recall correctly, marriages where one partner is evangelical Christian fares particularly poorly.

I am part of that group, and I'm happy to share experience via memail if that's ever relevant (to anyone, not just OP). And I've seen it happen TONS of times, and it's not good for anyone...especially the children torn between two parents with warring core principles.
posted by guster4lovers at 8:13 PM on January 7, 2014 [1 favorite]

I've had friends who I hang out with and watch sports, and I'm not really big into sports. But I like these people, and watching sports with them can be more interesting, as they are very into them. So if that's your attitude towards the Bible/Christianity I don't see anything wrong.

But for myself, I wouldn't be able to do the same with most Bible study groups. There are lots of things I find objectionable in the Bible (if it's being treated as an infallibly dictating how we should live), and I'd have to ask myself how I would behave if, for example, they started interpreting passages as condemning homosexuals and saying we must do so. I wouldn't be able to sit quietly through that, no matter how nice the people were otherwise. You might want to ask yourself how you would react to that.

(I don't want to imply that all Bible study groups are like that. I'm sure there are those that take a more critical perspective, and plenty of Christian communities that are totally welcoming to all genders. But I think it's worth considering if it's a possibility here, and thinking it out.)
posted by benito.strauss at 8:19 PM on January 7, 2014 [2 favorites]

If you don't don't believe in their religion but find the Bible study interesting or stimulating and enjoy the discussion I think you are fine and even one of their target audiences. If you are actively hostile or dismissive (even if only internally) of their religion then I think maybe you should not be a regular visitor.

You're getting some exposure to one of religion's best selling points, community and human fellowship. It's a helluva drug.
posted by pseudonick at 8:24 PM on January 7, 2014

it seems a little disingenuous to show up at Bible study more than a few times if you're not interested and don't see yourself becoming interested in the content. It seems like taking advantage to me.

That's OK, they'll turn the other cheek.

But seriously: if you've found a bunch of people you like, then keep hanging out with them until you find some actual reason not to. There is absolutely no point in a pre-emptive decision to cut yourself off from people whose company you enjoy because you anticipate that there might be an interpersonal problem looming ahead. The right time to deal with interpersonal problems is when you have them, not when you fear them.

The idea that you can't enjoy people's company unless you're One Of Us One Of Us is just backasswards and wrong. Diversity of religious belief, while intolerable to some, doesn't need to be; provided you never forget that your own principles, prejudices and delusions are at least as weird and busted as anybody else's, there is no reason at all why this couldn't keep on working.

I'm atheist and I semi-regularly attend the Friday Evening Service put on by our local minister because I enjoy his company and that of the others who attend. The centrepiece of each night's discussions is always some piece of Scripture, and I've never been made to feel as if my own perspective on whatever we're talking about is unwelcome - quite the reverse in fact. FES is a welcome opportunity to discuss ethical issues with others who care about these things, and I value it for that and am grateful to Tom for setting it up and keeping it going.

There are people there who draw a great deal of strength from their faith, and others who would, I think, be much less troubled if they'd unclench a little about theirs. Those are my private opinions, and I respect my fellow FES attendees enough not to make an issue of them while I'm there. And while it is almost certainly the case that there are people attending the FES who see my own lack of religious faith as something I'd be better off changing, nobody has ever made a serious attempt at conversion. The unspoken agreement seems to be that if you don't Benny Hinn me, I won't Richard Dawkins you.

I agree that seeing children torn between parents with warring core principles is genuinely tragic. I disagree that a commitment to converting others to one's own religious faith is always going to be, for anybody with a genuine understanding of Christ's message, a stronger core principle than treating those around you with genuine love, respect and acceptance.
posted by flabdablet at 8:27 PM on January 7, 2014 [15 favorites]

As someone who goes to a church group both out of faith and socially, I am begging you not to attend the group just for the dating pool. Those women are probably looking for "good Christian men" to marry within a year or two and it's not fair to date them casually when their worldview and desires and assumptions for a relationship are probably so, so much different from yours (be honest, would you really be happy being abstinent boyfriend of one of those attractive girls for a year or two, then getting married?). Please, unless you have some commonality of belief, don't try to poach these women as dating partners. Not only is it not fair to either of you, it's also liable to damage your connection with the community.
posted by windykites at 8:32 PM on January 7, 2014 [10 favorites]

I'm an atheist who has hung out in various church groups. So, sometimes it's awesome and you learn a lot about your friend's culture, and sometimes it's awful and someone starts a conversation about whether it's okay to have non-religious friends and they come to the conclusion that NO it is not okay to have non-religious friends and no one will make eye contact with you.

So, sure, go for it. If they turn out to be kind of jerks, you can always stop going.
posted by Dynex at 8:39 PM on January 7, 2014 [1 favorite]

first up, they are trying to convert you

No. This is an unfair statement. Some of them may be trying to convert you, but many of them are more likely to assume you have faith than to actively seek conversion.

In my opinion, it's totally ok to show up as whoever you are, as long as you're honest about it and not a jerk.
posted by windykites at 8:41 PM on January 7, 2014 [4 favorites]

Alain de Botton on Atheism 2.0 might help clarify your thinking on this.

There is no need for anybody to be automatically written off as a "good Christian man" simply because they don't believe that Christ was uniquely divine.
posted by flabdablet at 8:41 PM on January 7, 2014 [2 favorites]

Friends, yes. Girlfriends, no. It is totally okay to go for awhile and then stop going. It's okay to go even if you don't believe all the same things the other people do. As long as you're respectful, etc. But you should know that "agnostic but hasn't really thought about it too much but doesn't like organized religion on principle" is, like, exactly the sort of person that young evangelicals love to go after. Because what you've told this girl is basically that you haven't been exposed to religion, that you really like these particular religious people when you're around them, that you're open to the idea that there could be a god out there at least to the extent of not labelling yourself an atheist.

Honestly, there are a lot of evangelical types who really are just that nice and who are really good at hospitality and stuff, and most modern evangelicals are not raised to, like, bury you in Chick tracts as a method of trying to convert you. They're probably just going to be nice and encourage you to keep coming and hold out hope that when you see how amazing it is to be in the warmth of Christian fellowship, you will want to be a Christian, too. This does happen with some regularity, YMMV about whether you believe they're genuine conversions, rather than just lonely people, but hey. It's very rarely a hard sell anymore.

If it's something you could see maybe happening, great. If you can't, just be careful that you're not representing yourself as more open to the theological side of this than you really are, because if they're not hard-sell types, then it's sort of like if you had a girl who you knew had a crush on you, and you kept hanging around with her, and yet you weren't at all interested but you liked her cooking? Try not to be that guy.
posted by Sequence at 8:45 PM on January 7, 2014 [5 favorites]

I'll second windykites comment that using the Bible study just as a dating pool would be in very bad taste, though you'd hardly be the first. Sequence also just made good points right above me.

Right now you think going to the Bible study would be good for you. I think you should ask yourself: Will my attending be either neutral or good for them and their group?

If you can answer yes, then go with a clear conscience.
posted by pseudonick at 8:49 PM on January 7, 2014 [1 favorite]

If you do go, maybe you could reinforce the idea that not all non-Christians are bad people :)
posted by amtho at 8:58 PM on January 7, 2014

it's sort of like if you had a girl who you knew had a crush on you, and you kept hanging around with her, and yet you weren't at all interested but you liked her cooking? Try not to be that guy.

That's really good advice, provided you apply it specifically to people you meet rather than as some kind of general principle guiding your attitude toward any group they might belong to. The group as a whole cannot have a crush on you; the group as a whole is owed no ethical consideration beyond that applying to its members.

That said: the common interest that brought the group together will be a pretty good guide as to the kinds of ethical concerns that will arise in encounters with members. "Don't be a dick" is a good rule to follow in all circumstances, and it's extra important to keep uppermost in your mind when dealing with people who are, by default, open and welcoming.

So my best advice to you about this group is: go, enjoy, participate, and don't toy with these people. They're disposed to like you. Don't give them sound reasons not to.

Bear in mind that a difference of opinion about the divinity or even the historicity of a religion's central figure is not in and of itself a sound reason to dislike somebody. The way in which any such difference is expressed might well be.
posted by flabdablet at 9:09 PM on January 7, 2014 [1 favorite]

Religious communities do DO community very well. That doesn't take away from the fact that they are BELIEVERS. You are not. This relationship (and any romantic relationship you hope to form from it) is at best time limited. Enjoy the community for now. Don't expect more, unless you feel a heart felt conversion to believing their world view and religious take on things. If you don't you will always be a them to their "us."
posted by BrooksCooper at 9:12 PM on January 7, 2014 [1 favorite]

After some loss in my life I took up knitting and ended up getting "adopted" by a knitting group from a local church - my knitting teacher and another friend coincidentally were both in the group. I'm agnostic. We just gab about stuff going on in everyone's lives and rarely does talk turn to church. They are so nice and fun and inclusive. I've gone to their church a couple of times for choral programs (many are part of their choir). In 3 years no one has tried to convert me and I consider them welcoming friends who just all happen to go to the same church.

As to the Bible study, I don't think there is anything wrong with learning about the Bible even if you aren't a believer. There is something to be said for having an understanding about what others believe. So long as they understand what your beliefs are and they don't mind you being there, take the offers of friendship. It sounds like a nice group.
posted by cecic at 9:35 PM on January 7, 2014 [2 favorites]

In general this sounds fine to me. Even dating one of these girls is fine, I don't think it has to be strictly spiritual, lots of people have met their S.O. at church and people can be married from different religions but have similar core values & interests. But I've known nice, friendly, like-minded groups only to later see their seedy undersides of manipulation and control, competition and isolation. I don't want you to waste years getting sucked into shit like that, or lose your self in the process, so consider the following:

- Now (Today) write down what you believe from your own pov, your own reasoning and your own experience. Save it. Refer to it periodically. Because they will use repetition, repetition, repetition to chip away at it and get you to think like them. They will reframe every single fucking thing to fit their jesus worldview - "god's will I got that parking spot" etc.
- also continue to develop friends outside this group (don't want groupthink kicking in, or to be so isolated from different pov's that you start to change your beliefs against your true feelings). If the group is truly cool, compassionate, open etc. then this won't be an issue; furthermore there won't be pressure to bring any new friends of yours into this new group. Your relationships with others will get better, not more isolated. They are happy that you have relationships outside this group.
- is your need for warmth, acceptance & group cohesion causing you to censor yourself?
- notice the any big huge validation you'll get any time you say anything that corresponds to their worldview. Notice if it makes you feel super good to get that positive feed back (like you're on a high).
- If they are more interested that you see things like they do, as opposed to wanting you to find your authentic voice, run.
- are you the type to get swayed or try to please others? have you lost yourself in relationships? do you have latent subjugation / self-sacrifice issues? when people have pulled away from you in the past, even in little ways, did it hurt a ridiculous amount and send you into a tailspin?
- are they, like, lovebombing you?
- does their warmth for you cut off if you disagree with them? months from now, after they've failed to convert you, are they still warm even if you still disagree?
- how is conflict handled in the group?
- boundaries? Can they handle a straight-up no? "Come to church" "no" "but but but...."
- are there levels that you have to work towards? "oh you'll understand that later" etc, or are they truly dealing with you as an equal? are some people more "on top" than others? yes this always happens when people form groups, but it can take a more creepy turn in groups like this.
- do they talk "us" vs "them" in regards to "non-believers" (as though they've figured out the one true way etc) or are they really just people trying to cope with life, like anyone else?
- don't get sucked in by your penis dude. Charming ladies charm men all the time. Make sure you know what actual real connections with someone feel like, not "connections" because someone is paying attention to you or happy because you think like them. Know what it feels like to have a equal partner in life, someone who has your back.
- even worse, I hope they aren't doing that "faux group dating" thing where people are afraid to actually properly pair off, so they get faux intimacy needs met without actually (ahem) going all they way emotionally. Non-sexual touching, friendly massages etc. I guess inherently this isn't bad, but its kind of stunted emotionally.

So in general honestly this sounds fine. I don't think it's an ethical quandry. You can hang out. Don't partake in the parts that you don't agree with. Maybe you don't go to church but do all the other things, and that's your boundary. Enjoy the debate. I'm part of a (completely different) religious group myself and I love it, it has helped me grow and I can be myself both good and bad, and that base teaches me strength to grow in many other areas. If these people are like that then fabu!

Maybe your quandry is fear of being overly influenced especially due to your needs at this time. You're human and no one is an island; we all get influenced by our peers. It's been said we are an average of the 5 people we spend the most time with. And even if they do influence you, shit as long as it's for the better (ie you're happier, your relationships with everyone, including family, coworkers and those outside this group are better, you're more accepting & compassionate, loving & patient) then great. Maybe even you do start believing what they're talking about - true belief (faith) comes from the heart and from the experience. It makes sense to your mind too. There won't be any conflict; it will just feel right. And if there is conflict you can talk about it without getting shamed or coerced. Anyways just watch and see and test and make sure these people are as they seem. I've noted the squicky stuff I've seen above, stuff that would make me personally hi-tail it out of there. I don't want you spending years developing friendships with people only to find that these friendships were shallow, conditional and that they didn't actually love you for who you really are. That would be shitty.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 9:55 PM on January 7, 2014 [1 favorite]

I was in a group exactly like this in my 20s -- we had a Bible study, and we spent a ton of time socially together. It was like walking into a fully formed friend group where you're immediately a member of the group, which is great when you're a transplant.

I would have had no problem whatsoever with your being a part of that group as a non-religious person. You're obviously being honest about your views. I would avoid letting the discussion focus too much on you (not that you need to be silent all night or anything, but people will be so eager to answer your questions that it could end up monopolizing discussion if you're not careful), and I would also avoid dating anybody if you can.
posted by gerstle at 10:19 PM on January 7, 2014 [1 favorite]

The time you spend hanging out with your bible study friends whose beliefs you consider silly could keep you from meeting fellow agnostics whose views you might respect.

And, if you're not a believer, what are you going to say at bible study? I suspect the other folks' appetite for parsing the heck out of bible passages far exceeds yours. If you don't contribute to the discussion, someone might pull you aside later for a heart-to-heart talk to find out why. After all, your friend is the only person you've been candid with. And if you do get into a pattern of speaking, won't the whole thing seem sordid after a while because of the insincerity?
posted by ADave at 10:34 PM on January 7, 2014 [4 favorites]

What if you did start dating one of these Christian girls? Could you be 100% respectful towards her deeply held convictions and beliefs, without harboring contempt and derision towards them? Could you utterly respect her feelings about sex without trying to chip them away and wear her down? Could you respect her desires about family life, raising kids in her religion, family participation in the religious community, without trying to make her "compromise"? If any of these answers are anything less than a completely confident and enthusiastic "yes," I think it would be rather not-nice to go after those girls. And it would be a likely recipe for a shitty relationship where both people made each other miserable.
posted by cairdeas at 10:35 PM on January 7, 2014 [5 favorites]

Isn't what you're looking for the whole point of Unitarian churches? I've never been to one, but I have heard they are basically church for nonbelievers.
posted by Comet Bug at 10:51 PM on January 7, 2014 [4 favorites]

Just go. I think you will get tired of it after awhile if there's any actual studying happening. Meanwhile, you either make friends and do other things or you don't.
posted by michaelh at 12:44 AM on January 8, 2014 [1 favorite]

As long as you don't fake belief (even wishy-washily) I think you're fine, with one caveat that I'll mention below. Here are some possibilities for what might happen:
* Eventually you get bored with or offended by these people and leave (or you bore or offend them)
* They successfully convert you and you become a true believer (would you be OK with this?)
* You continue to maintain your agnostic belief system, they respect that, fun times are had
* Worst case scenario: you kind of fudge your beliefs, or they assume that you believe something you don't, and you establish relationships with these people that are based on something between a misunderstanding and a falsehood

Here's my caveat: my college friends are almost all much more religious than me (um, which isn't hard, I'm kind of a dyed-in-the-wool atheist, though not the Dawkins-y proselytizing kind). I didn't meet them through church or anything, it just kind of happened that way. I'm now heading towards my 15 year reunion and I still love them all to death but to put it crudely, hanging out with that social circle made it really hard to get laid. Just sayin'.
posted by mskyle at 6:38 AM on January 8, 2014

If you find the actual Bible Study interesting (and why wouldn't you?) I see no reason not to go. If you're gritting your teeth through it to get to coffee hour, then no.

I have a large number of deeply religious friends. They know that I have some pretty unorthodox beliefs. We agree about a lot of stuff and steer clear of topics that may be contentious. We each respect the other's beliefs.

I don't feel the need for my friends to agree with me on everything. In the Venn Diagram of our friendship, we overlap plenty.

As for dating folks from the group....not a great idea. But, they may have nice friends, so don't rule that out.

If the Bible Study portion starts to be a drag, drop out, but keep up contact with these folks and invite them to social stuff. Eventually, they'll just be your friends, and the rest won't matter too much.

If you like a religious community, do check out a Unitarian Universalist congregation.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 6:38 AM on January 8, 2014 [1 favorite]

Many people participate in religious communities for the social and community life they provide, more than the religious benefits. Some people do this explicitly and some do it kinda by default. This is extremely common, and it's something that religious people (I'm one!) know very well. It would not surprise me or offend me if someone did this explicitly, although it would probably create a weird social distance between us.

Bottom line: I just don't think this is a big deal.
posted by OrangeDisk at 6:55 AM on January 8, 2014

> I am begging you not to attend the group just for the dating pool. Those women are probably looking for "good Christian men" to marry within a year or two and it's not fair to date them casually

Eh, that's their choice. The women are in their twenties (and not "girls" as so many people are calling them here) and are free to make up their own minds.

So long as the OP is clear that he's not a Christian and isn't interested in becoming one, I don't see what the problem is. It's not like he's lying about his faith to get in their pants.
posted by The corpse in the library at 8:40 AM on January 8, 2014 [4 favorites]

Something occurred to me about the "conversion" aspect of this, which is a pretty good test of whether these people are actually just really friendly people who want to include you in their social circle, or if they're trying to bring you to Jesus so to speak.

If you stopped going to bible study but still wanted to go to football watching parties, would that be cool, or awkward?

I've always had friends from a lot of different religious backgrounds, from devout Evangelical Christian to atheist to Sikh to Catholic to wishy-washy "cake or death" Episcopalian* to observant Muslim and beyond. None of them care what my religious beliefs are, which is great. Likewise, I honestly couldn't care less what they believe.

But our friendships aren't built around any shared assumption. If Ranjit, Noam, Dave, Abbas, Claire, and Mary Frances want to come to after work happy hour but not come to my Super Bowl party, that's fine. If they want to go to a rock show but not come to the Gay Pride parade that's also fine. Anything goes! It's great! I don't make any assumptions at all about what kinds of interests my diverse group of friends has.

However, when you join a group that is explicitly a Bible Study Group, you can't make those assumptions. And that's not because all Christians are trying to convert you, or because Christians are judgy bad people who will stop being your friend if you're not Christian. It's because you made friends with them on the pretense of joining their religion.

Now, if they're legitimate friends, they'll understand when your interest in Bible Study wanes and be happy to have you at any other social event you want to attend (just like I honestly couldn't care less whether my friends want to join a book club with me or not).

However, if they were just hanging out with you in the hopes that you would join their church? When you stop going to bible study, the invites for tailgating and birthday parties and game night will dry up. And then you'll know.

*I get to say that because I grew up Episcopalian.
posted by Sara C. at 9:03 AM on January 8, 2014

Okay, there's a whole ton going on here. As someone who has been part of groups like this from the "inside," I think I can speak with some personal knowledge that I hope the OP and the room will find helpful. Or, at least, not too off-putting.

I think the first thing you need to ask yourself is whether you maintain any kind of committed, active antipathy for Christianity. If you do, and you're not willing to reconsider that, then I'd be very, very careful about moving forward here. That sort of starting place sounds like it might make social interactions very difficult.

I'm not saying that you shouldn't go--I'm a Christian, so I obviously think going to Bible study is good for everyone--but you're just going to need to be careful about how you handle yourself. As discussed below, you're being invited to participate in a pre-existing community. If you're not willing to engage with what that community is doing, on its own terms (including established ways of relating to unbelievers), then the resulting experience is not likely to be positive for anyone.

It doesn't sound like that's where you're coming from, but I think it's worth saying for others who might read this thread in the future.

I also think you need to be prepared for the possibility that if you like what these people have going, start showing up to this thing on a weekly basis, and start hanging out with Christians a lot, you may also start to find the Bible interesting in spite of yourself. Believe it or not, yours sounds like the beginning of an almost stereotypical conversation story. You would not believe how many people in churches today first became Christians because at one point they started going to a Bible study to be around a guy/girl they liked. It happens. A lot. I'm not making any kind of prediction here, I'm just sayin'.

On to your specific question(s):

But is it wrong to try and be a part of this VERY JESUS FOCUSED community of awesome people my age if I myself have pretty much zero interest in Jesus, the bible, etc?

This is an easy one: definitely not. Pretty much every religious tradition has a place for non-religious people within it, and most are outright welcoming of "outsiders." On one level, you're probably overthinking this. If the people in this group didn't want you to be there, they wouldn't have invited you. They may be Christians, but they're still people, after all.

That being said, there are probably a few things you should think about before you make a decision here.

First, understand that you are being invited to participate in a pre-existing community with its own traditions and expectations. This isn't about religion either: every community has its own traditions and expectations. But as this is a religious community--and I'm assuming we're talking about is some species of relatively conservative Protestantism*--some of those expectations are going to be situated within a broader, and much older, religious tradition.

But you do need to keep in mind that, hey, these people have their own thing going. They've graciously invited you to be part of that. As such, you kind of need to engage with them on their terms. It should go without saying that this being a Bible study, trying to convince people to switch from that to a board game group or a weekly pub crawl would be somewhat inappropriate. But it probably is worth saying that this is a Bible study that's necessarily coming at things from the perspective of genuine and sincere faith. As such, you need to be willing to engage with that from a sincere place. So, for instance, when the group discusses a particular passage of Scripture, everyone else in the room is going to be operating from a set of shared theological assumptions that aren't really up for discussion.** I think being polite in this context means being okay with going with that flow.

Don't get me wrong: agonsticism can be sincere! And if this group is anything like as welcoming as it sounds, they will have absolutely no problem engaging with you if you have sincere questions about Christianity. You just need to sincerely engage with them from where you're at. If you have honest questions, ask them honestly, and be prepared for honest answers. But there's a kind of bad faith questioning that indicates that the questioner has already made up his mind and isn't interested in changing it. It's not about the specific questions that are asked as much as the spirit in which they are asked. It's kind of hard to give more details here, as it's a know-it-when-you-see-it sort of thing.

In short, if you want to be part of this community, you need to be okay with the fact that the prevailing view (1) isn't your own, and (2) isn't really subject to negotiation. Arguing with people about the legitimacy of their religious beliefs is not going to be appropriate. You also probably need to be okay with the fact that people will never really stop trying to encourage you to convert. Again, assuming we're talking about conservative Protestants, that's just not going to go away.

Second, be careful on the romantic relationship side of things. If you're not religious, I can pretty much guarantee that any attempt on your part to become romantically involved with one of these young women is going to be a very complicated proposition for her. Especially if she's interested. Again, assuming we're talking about some kind of conservative Protestants, even if one of them does want to date you, she's going to feel conflicted about that unless you've genuinely converted. That's just the way it is. You may not have any problem dating someone who doesn't believe the same thing that you do, but conservative Protestants do, pretty much across the board. Knowing that, I think it would be unfair for you to try to become involved with one of these women. You would not be respecting her beliefs if you ignored the fact that you'd be putting her in a very difficult place.

Which leads me to comment on this:

If you stopped going to bible study but still wanted to go to football watching parties, would that be cool, or awkward?. . . . However, when you join a group that is explicitly a Bible Study Group, you can't make those assumptions. And that's not because all Christians are trying to convert you, or because Christians are judgy bad people who will stop being your friend if you're not Christian. It's because you made friends with them on the pretense of joining their religion.

I don't think that's exactly it. Most Christians I know would not assume that someone who showed up to a Bible study once or twice was operating under any "pretense of joining their religion." But the kind of people who regularly attend Bible study tend to be the kind of people whose faith is very, very important to them. So if you meet someone at a Bible study, hit it off, and then try to say "Hey, we should hang out, but I don't want to go to Bible study," that's not really going to fly. Conservative Protestants literally think of God as one of the most important people in their lives.*** Trying to be friends with a dedicated, conservative Protestant that you met at a Bible study without ever attending religious functions with them, is kind of like trying to be friends with someone married without ever meeting their spouse. It can be done, but the relationship will never progress beyond a certain level. They're probably spending a lot of their free and/or social time involved in religious activities anyway, so there's that if nothing else. They've made their religion a priority, and if that's not a priority you share, maintaining an intimate relationship is going to be very difficult logistically, to say nothing of emotionally.

That really is something you need to think about here. If you like these people and want to spend more time with them, hey, that's a good enough reason in and of itself for doing so. But you need to understand and be okay with the fact that religion plays a very important role in their lives, and it's probably something they spend a lot of time on. Trying to build a relationship with them without having anything to do with their faith isn't really going to be possible beyond a certain rather superficial level of involvement.

*Which I'd argue is not an unreasonable assumption, as most 20-something Bible studies are conducted by relatively conservative Protestants.

**They're engaged in an ongoing conversation, meaning they'll have already worked certain things out for themselves. Bible studies are about building on that foundation more than re-visiting it. I can't say exactly what their beliefs are without knowing which branch of Christianity we're talking about, but I think it's safe to say that, at a minimum, they're all going to share assumptions about the Bible being the Word of God and what that means. As such, they're probably not going to be interested in having a conversation about whether the Bible is the Word of God in this context. Their conversation has moved beyond that. If you want to talk about that issue, it might be a good idea to take someone aside and have that conversation apart from the main group. Etc. I'd compare it to a professor telling you to come to his office after class to discuss what he views as a remedial or otherwise off-topic question so he can get on with his material.

***No, really. You know all that language about a "personal relationship with Jesus Christ"? They're not kidding. They really do mean that.
posted by valkyryn at 9:43 AM on January 8, 2014 [10 favorites]

I'm not a Christian. I have attended Bible study groups with some success. Also, I welcome the Watchtower lady on her monthly visits. I'm up front about not wishing to get converted. I do well with those folks who are well grounded in the lives and times of Biblical characters. For example, I like to know what it meant, in those days, to have a shekel, or why a citizen of the times was attracted to Jesus and his radical posse. I avoid discussions about the benefits of being saved. This is by way of a common agreement. I don't snark all over their tenets, and they don't neener me about going to Hell.

I used Bible study sessions the way I use my jams with the Old Time Fiddlers. I don't really socialize with the folks outside the music venues. I like a lot of them, dislike a couple of them, get along with them all. I get along because our relationship is based on playing music. The Bible study group was about emerging Christianity, or sometimes Old Testament books.

Part of the Christian mandate is to spread the Good News. But not all Christians have worded their mandate the same way, and not all of them keep it pasted to their foreheads. You certainly don't have to be a Christian to be friends with Christians. However, using the study group as a dating pool is probably doomed to have a sorry result.

The trick is to respect these people. One way to do this would be to have the discussion about conversion early on. You will get to listen to several of the individuals give testimony, and they will get to listen to your vision of the cosmos and your place in it. Both you and they will profit by this, but only if you keep in mind that the revelations are not debates. After a couple of these session you and the group will have a good sense of how you fit in their workshops. Friendships are golden. But don't look for a romantic hookup here unless you also get inspired to have a personal relationship with Jesus.
posted by mule98J at 10:47 AM on January 8, 2014

Religious communities can be wonderful, but they can also come with a lot of baggage (leaders using their position and the $$ tithed by the congregants to push odious, retrograde ideology; creepy, manipulative recruiting). That may or may not be the case here, but if it is don't let loneliness blind you to it until you are in over your head.

The women are in their twenties (and not "girls" as so many people are calling them here) and are free to make up their own minds.

So long as the OP is clear that he's not a Christian and isn't interested in becoming one, I don't see what the problem is. It's not like he's lying about his faith to get in their pants.

True, but on the other hand, young women (and men) are generally still learning about themselves. One expectation many young Christians (and others) have is that they will soon marry and then start a family. It is naive to think that things won't get more serious, and that when they do, things that seemed understood and accepted at the beginning of a relationship won't end up being a source of confusion and uncertainty.

My point being that this sort of thing can be much less clear in practice than it seems in the abstract.
posted by Good Brain at 11:03 AM on January 8, 2014 [1 favorite]

...she still seemed adamant that I join them at the next service.

This raised my eyebrows. Go again if you want, but keep your antennae up.

I like the advice above that posits your spending time with this group means spending less potential time with a more well-suited group to you. Don't let the feel-good contradict what your intellect may be telling you.
posted by BostonTerrier at 11:48 AM on January 8, 2014

Lots of good stuff in here already, but I would just add that a lot of these kinds of groups absolutely, affirmatively want someone like you there. Many of these studies have an evangelistic intent, and some of the group are probably delighted to have you sitting in on the discussion. It's not an imposition, it's their mission. I've been in groups where skeptic/agnostic types attended regularly for months or years, and everyone knew that they weren't Christian, and that person knew that the rest of the group would like them to convert. But it wasn't necessarily awkward, as long as everything was respectful. Honestly, an outsider voice with sincere but polite questions and comments can really liven up a Bible study group. Insiders get trained to read certain passages certain ways, and if you got involved in the discussion, it might give everyone a new perspective.

(This is my perspective as a former evangelical pastor.)
posted by Pater Aletheias at 1:46 PM on January 8, 2014

Valkyryn is right. He said everything I would have said but more eloquently. I want to add that Christian dating expectations are extremely different from secular ones. Many Christians will only date someone they see the potential of marrying. If you date someone of that mindset casually, it would probably be hurtful for them, and maybe you as well.
posted by xenophile at 4:08 PM on January 9, 2014

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