Help an ex-Christian navigate her 25 year reunion
February 22, 2017 1:56 AM   Subscribe

I was a pretty active evangelical Christian at university (UK). How do I navigate my reunion with grace and charm? I don't have major regrets or animosity towards Christians, but equally I don't want to buy into the 'backslider' narrative. More details below.

I am a happy post-Christian agnostic/atheist who finds common ground with both liberal Christians and humanists.
I am going to a reunion where I will meet up with lots of friends from my student days, many of whom appear (from Facebook) to still be conservative evangelicals. These are very persuasive, intelligent people. I want to be prepared so I don't simply revert to patterns of interaction that are now 25 years out of date, when I was considerably less confident and secure. Some things I am expecting..
- the question 'So where are you going to church at the moment?' as an opener
- questions about my husband, an atheist, leading to assumptions that I have left the faith because of him
- mild rebukes or sadness expressed, perhaps in a patronising or patriarchal way
I have no desire to argue with these people about matters of faith especially over a formal dinner. But neither do I want to slide into a self-deprecating, apologetic narrative of my own decline and fall, one that assumes their worldview as an a priori.
These are nice people with whom I want to spend a nice evening - please give me some practical advice.
Thank you.
posted by Heloise9 to Human Relations (10 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
To the first, I'd frankly use the politician's trick of dodging the question. Something like "well, we used to go to First Baptist, until we moved to New Town a few years ago. New Town's been a really great place to live for the most part, we really like It because..." If you haven't moved you'll have to pick another pivot point, maybe something like "oh, you know First Baptist over on Elm? Yeah, we used to go there, boy that neighbourhood's really changed, do you remember that pizza joint we would go to...."

I suggest this course because to my mind one of the useful bits of being agnostic is that one is not compelled by one's non-faith to spread the neutral word of our lack of salvation. Your beliefs are a private matter, and in the interests of having a lovely evening with people you otherwise enjoy, I would attempt to avoid as best I can having a conversation which will cause conflict. You seem to feel it inevitable that their casual presumptions will lead to such conflict, as you will be forced to be forthright in return. But I don't think you have to be. Like, why would your husband's atheism even come up in the course of party chatter, unless you were having a conversation about your own spiritual practices? If you simply redirect away when the conversation looks likely to head in that direction, you can find something else to land on that both parties will enjoy discussing.
Think of it this way: If in the course of conversation someone mentioned that they'd just been to see the Dave Mathews Band, and you despise DMB, would your response be, "oh, you like them? I actually hate Dave Matthews." Or would it be, "oh, really? Was that at Red Rocks? Man, that's an amazing venue, isn't it?"
posted by Diablevert at 2:55 AM on February 22, 2017 [3 favorites]

Yeah, like Diablevert I'm not really clear on why your husband's atheism would come up if you or he didn't mention it; regardless, I think the twin powers of Deflection and Detatchment are your friends here. Sure, if it becomes obvious to these folks that you're no longer religious they very well may express sadness or disapproval - but there's no need for you to apologize (and actually, I think any sort of apologetic stance would only validate their disapproval to them). A smile and "oh, we're very happy, thanks" is really all the response that kind of remark requires. Follow up with a common-ground topic to curtail the religious discussion - "Hey, remember how obsessed [friend] was with [popular teenage heartthrob]? Do you think she ever got that tattoo removed?" Similarly if somehow they do try to "blame" your agnosticism on your husband, let them think what they want, and move the conversation into other waters - you don't need to defend yourself or your husband.

So basically, I think you navigate this with some serious pep-talks in the upcoming days - you and your husband are happy, you've come to your agnosticism legitimately, there was no "decline and fall" and you have nothing to apologize for! - and go in there believing all of these things are true. The more you believe that of course you have nothing to apologize for, the more you can project that calmly and non-defensively, the less likely your former classmates are going to be to give you a hard time (and the less bothered you're likely to be if they do). Good luck and have fun!
posted by DingoMutt at 5:28 AM on February 22, 2017

Practice short, vague answers to these particular questions. After you give the short answer immediately ask them questions. You will come across as a good conversationalist and people won't notice you are trying to deflect. Just keep asking them related questions and gently steer the conversation to something non-churchy based on their answers.

Them: So where are you going to church at the moment?
You: I last went to XYZ (don't mention it was 3 years ago). What about you?
Then, the deflection: Do any of our mutual friends go there? What's she up to? How is her daughter? Does she still have that great haircut? Speaking of, where do you get your hair cut? etc.
or: Isn't that in X neighborhood? Does the park there still have that fantastic lake? Do you know of any other parks like that? Do you have a favorite place to go for a walk? etc.

It's also fine to say something like "I'm don't feel like talking about church right now because it's something we all know about each other already. What have you been up to? How is your family?"
posted by beyond_pink at 5:55 AM on February 22, 2017

I agree that if you just don't want to talk about your religious life, deflect. Sure, someone could try to press you despite your deflection, but this is a formal dinner, you aren't on the witness stand. They will feel a certain social pressure not to cause a scene or make anyone uncomfortable particularly if they are generally nice, well-mannered people. People love to talk about themselves so asking them questions about their lives can be an effective way to change the topic or keep the focus off of you.
posted by Alluring Mouthbreather at 6:10 AM on February 22, 2017

I think concerns that fundamentalist Christians have about backsliding are things like, "Did someone 'get to' her?" "Is she in her right mind?" "Was she blinded by emotion?" "Has the devil taken root in her life?" "Has she turned away from God in a fit of anger and bitterness?" "Will God lead me to help guide her back?" "Can we still relate to each other?" "Will she contaminate my beliefs with her unbelief?" There's a mix of fear of the unknown, trepidation about what to some Christians is a real lack of protection against spiritual attack, and concern. Some people--don't we all in some way--have an automatic reaction: revulsion, confusion, or, again, fear. Some will hear that you've moved away from a relationship with God and assume that you've lost all the good things that they see going with that: loving community, supportive relationships, sense of meaning, happiness, purpose, etc.

So I think there are some ways to respond that will at least address these reactions, and move toward a place where you can have a conversation and find common ground for the evening, recognizing you aren't going to agree on things.

- Describe briefly your process of coming to this point; show how it was rational, how you owned it and took the process seriously, considering things thoughtfully just as you did when you were Christian -- "After a period of exploration, and still recognizing the good things Christianity brought to my life, I decided the most authentic choice for me was to identify as agnostic."
- Own the process -- "I have had a journey in spirituality, discerning what made sense to me and taking a path of intellectual inquiry, and I've now become agnostic/atheist/I'm not a Christian anymore. I feel content. I've thought a lot about what life means, why we're here, how to spend my time in a valuable and intentional way, and I'm very happy with it. I have a strong community of loving friends and family, and am volunteering my time in these ways..."
- Invite them to express their faith practices to you, since they are still called to be respectful, to treat you with love, to be willing to explain to you the reasons for their belief, things like that -- if someone treats you poorly, and you know them well enough, consider gently letting them know this doesn't feel good and you don't feel loved
- Align your current beliefs with the things you believed previously, where you can, to give continuity -- "I am inspired by the things we have in common across humanity, and to recognize that there is something good in every person," which hearkens back to ideas about God loving everybody and the invitation for us to see people as Christ
- Recognize what was livegiving about your faith, which you friends may still experience -- "I'm grateful for the openness, rigor, and community that we shared as we explored Christian faith."
- Ask them questions about their own faith; show that you still speak the language and are interested in dialogue and learning together (especially if this was a big part of your relationship previously)
- Use your new language in a gentle way: journey, path, spirituality, meaning, universality, whatever framework you use now; this is honest and can set up a space of honest sharing with those friends who are willing to go there

If someone tries to get into a persuasive conversation or get you to confess how terrible things are, respond, and then take it back to a positive place or just redirect or say, "I'd like to have a fun night tonight and, while you bring up an important question, I'm not interested in talking about that right now." It's possible some people just won't be in a good place to engage with you, and that's not your fault, so I encourage you to prepare for disengaging politely and identifying the people who still want to relate to you.

It's also possible that some of the people will appreciate the opportunity to talk and hear about some other ways of understanding the world. You might find other people who have shifted in their thinking, both toward and away from fundamentalism.

Your friends very likely still care about you and they will, at minimum, want to know that you are well even if you disagree.
posted by ramenopres at 7:01 AM on February 22, 2017 [6 favorites]

I didn't go to an evangelical college, but I ran in those crowds from high school through grad school, and am now pretty much in the same boat as you (non-religious husband and all). In my experience with evangelicals, the deflection scripts above might work for casual chitchat with people you don't really know, but unlikely to work with old friends because they are all tuned in to who might be "backsliding," as you put it. Sure, change the subject or ask questions back at them once you've answered, but from my personal experience it seems unlikely that they wont pick up on you just avoiding the questions altogether. It's really tempting to obfuscate the truth, but I think that plays into their worldview and makes you seem apologetic about not being in the same spiritual place as them.

My recommendation is to be as honest as possible, keep your answers short and matter-of-fact, and don't engage with their attempts to chastise you or debate you into belief. Just accept their concern as loving and discard the rest if possible. In my experience, all of that is easier if you can couch your answers in evangelical lingo that you know your friends use, depending on how comfortable you are with still using that language. It's a short hand to say, "I know where you are coming from and have considered everything you are going to say. I don't need you to save me."

Q: Where are you going to church these days?
A: Oh, we don't have a church home. What about you?

If they question why you aren't going to church (or that you are "unequally yoked" with a nonbeliever, gasp!), say you are at peace with your faith journey and your decisions. Or that you are very happy and in love with your husband, and he's been nothing but supportive about your beliefs. I don't think you need to go into a testimonial about how you came to your current religious status, but no need to hide it. If they have concerns or relay mild sadness/tut-tutting, you say something like, I appreciate how you love me enough to be worried, but I wrestled with my faith years ago and I'm satisfied with what I'm doing. Now let's talk about you!

If they persist or try to argue with you, you can say something like, "Hey, we both know that you can't argue someone into belief. The miracle of faith requires the Holy Spirit, right? Let's just leave it to Him, okay, and we can talk about something else."

Oh, and you should also probably decide if you are OK with accepting people saying they will pray for you and family. I'm generally fine with it, but if your husband isn't ok with people praying for him, you should come up with a kind but firm script.
posted by alligatorpear at 7:28 AM on February 22, 2017 [8 favorites]

With evangelicals, you can't prevent them from believing that your nonbelief is caused by outside influences. Demons, your husband, the devil himself. So what you are asking - how can I phrase things so they don't think that - is a nonstarter. You can phrase things to stop the conversation about it though.

You say you want nothing more than a nice night with them. So say that.
"Yeah, I know you see it that way, but hey, I'm still me!"

And if they persist: "I hear you but I just want a nice night with you guys, reminiscing about things like when Bobby knocked over the silverware cart in the dining hall. Remember that? I can still hear the crash!"

And if they persist: "Really?" with a direct stare. Then to your husband: "Come on honey, let's dance."

FWIW I totally disagree with the above advice to skim over their questions and pretend you are still a believer. It won't work, and besides, your beliefs/nonbeliefs are legitimate and you don't need to spend your reunion in the closet just because you think differently than everyone else. And you never know, there may be others who see things as you do too.
posted by headnsouth at 8:42 AM on February 22, 2017 [7 favorites]

I haven't had this issue myself when spending time around religious folk from my past. However that might be because they all know I have backslidden.

Keep in mind you are probably not the only one to change your mind about some things since then. If I had a nickel for every atheist/nonbeliever/person of unconventional faith I know who went to a Christian high school or college, I'd have many nickels.
posted by bunderful at 9:41 AM on February 22, 2017 [1 favorite]

- mild rebukes or sadness expressed, perhaps in a patronising or patriarchal way

I had a client once who was so worried for my eternal soul. She liked me and was genuinely sad I didn't have a church. I essentially went with alligatorpear's suggestion and said god would point me in the right direction when it was time (I didn't tell her I was an atheist, just that I was raised Catholic and didn't go to church at the moment). She'd let the conversation move on after that (she had some mild memory issues, so we had the conversation a few times). Basically refuse to engage in any serious discussion.
posted by ghost phoneme at 10:15 AM on February 22, 2017 [3 favorites]

Here's a possible positive narrative to avoid falling into the self-deprecating/apologetic one: Your spiritual path has led you to a different place than theirs have. Your path is different from theirs -- neither your path nor theirs is objectively better or more right, but your path is right for *you*. You have no need to try to convince your friends that your path is right for *them* or objectively better -- it's just what is right for you, at this time in your life. If they try to proselytise you, you're happy with your current path and are not interested in discussing it further. The key is to maintain your confidence in the rightness of your own spiritual choices (for yourself!) and avoid being drawn into a debate over their merits.

I've never been a Christian so I can't really anticipate your friends' reaction; feel free to jettison if this seems unproductive!
posted by heatherlogan at 4:37 PM on February 22, 2017

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