Supporting a recovering fundamentalist
October 2, 2007 2:58 PM   Subscribe

How can I help a friend who is leaving a fundamentalist Christian church?

My friend has lost his faith but despite this feels he is a sinner against the god he no longer believes in. Fundamentalist Christianity hasn't been a good experience for him and he doesn't want to stay in his current church, or to explore other sects/faiths at the moment. He is very depressed - I have talked about options for treatment with him, but would like suggestions for supporting someone specifically in this kind of religious crisis. I have never had any faith and am struggling to say anything useful, aware that I can only understand such churches, their theology and hold on people in an abstract way. He doesn't seem to have been well-supported in his church and has no-one he can talk to there. I have read the two books called "Leaving the Fold," but would welcome advice, suggestions for reading (for me or him) or other resources. (For any physically-based resources/groups, be aware that my friend lives in Scotland.)
posted by anonymous to Religion & Philosophy (38 answers total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
A friend of my wife's is also in the process of extricating herself from a damaging religious upbringing. Fortunately, the helping process is easy and fun-- all you have to do is hang out with the guy and have a good time doing all the harmless, fun things that the church said were evil. Go to a nice bar, have a few drinks, sing some karaoke. Listen to rock music. Play Dungeons & Dragons. You know, normal stuff. Don't push too hard or too fast-- don't break any civil laws-- but show the guy that it's okay to relax.
posted by Faint of Butt at 3:04 PM on October 2, 2007

Can you tell me anymore details about his falling out? Was it a personal run in with people, or a doctrinal issue(s)? For many, it is more specifically total breakdown of faith and sense of purpose in the god that was packaged in that harsh church they attended. I suspect their is specialized counseling for this that is similar to PTSD as it can feel like a crisis or a traumatic experience. If you have anymore details you are willing to share I would be interested. For the record, I was a pastor's kid and have had some strong misgivings about many practices and misunderstandings of doctrine in the church. I am a Christian but will promise to you that I will leave this at the doorstep when considering his needs. There has to be help for those suffering from various religious abuse. It sucks to be in flux, which is what it sounds like where he is.
posted by snap_dragon at 3:15 PM on October 2, 2007

Remind him that one can still be highly moral even if one doesn't believe in God. So, many of the things he probably found useful or attractive about the church's dictates will still be true in some version -- love your neighbor, help others, etc. He need not give up on that part of himself.
posted by LobsterMitten at 3:15 PM on October 2, 2007

I don't know about your friend's situation, but I was raised in a fundamentalist church, and I can relate to what he's going to.

It's a hard thing to realize that you've been lied to your whole life by the people you trusted the most. It's a hard thing to realize that nobody is watching over you, that no one has a plan for you, and that the reward for all of your sacrifice will be absolutely nothing.

I think there are two distinct threads here.

First, particularly if one was raised a fundamentalist, it's important to realize that you're not letting anyone down. They let you down. Your parents, pastors, etc. force-fed absolute bullshit to a naive child, and they really should've known better. It's not your fault, and leaving was the right thing to do.

Second, even though a secular world may seem bleak and pointless at first, it's actually a lot better than a world ruled by some raging psychopath in the sky. It just takes a little while to realize that it's OK to decide for yourself what's meaningful and important.
posted by Mr. President Dr. Steve Elvis America at 3:22 PM on October 2, 2007 [3 favorites]

Growing Up Goddy was mentioned here a few weeks ago, it's a blog by former fundamentalists (they might possibly know of some resources), a site similar to what you're looking for, for Mormons.
posted by LobsterMitten at 3:26 PM on October 2, 2007

Yeah, show him that all the things the church said were lures used by satan to destroy the lives of the faithful are hella fun. Just don't let him come to any harm (start slow) or he may return to the faith with a vengance, convinced that they were right after all.

Amish kids go through something called rumspringa in which they're allowed to venture in to the secular world and do as they'd like for a while and then decide whether to come back or not. A hell of a lot of them pick up a meth habit, conclude that life outside the church is in fact an endless barage of satanic influence, and return. An extreme example, yes, but keep it in mind.

Introduce him to good decent atheist/agnostic/areligious folks so he can be assured that lacking faith does not mean you'll become a crazed pervert or self centered jerk.

Take him to a natural history museum (if he was brought up creationist). Go to a big godless city like New York (or whatever is close). Have him read popular science books on evolution (the selfish gene is good, though it's author has done silly things recently).

Encourage him to learn a bit about philosophy (this is good for anyone, but more important to someone undergoing a radical shift in world view - he needs to realize that the questions he is now asking have been addressed by others before). Particularly regarding issues of faith without theistic basis.

My best wishes to your friend, and to you for trying to help him with what can be a terrifying process.

Fundamentalist christianity in the united states is very focused on sex in my experience. He is likely very conflicted about his sexuality. He has likely been conditioned to feel very guilty about masturbation or sexual fantasy in general. I'm not sure I'd breach the subject with him, but it's something to be aware of. It would be a bad idea, for instance, to go to strip club with him or hire a prostitute or something. Dating as the secular world knows it is inconceivable within most Christian theology, so avoid your normal expectations in that regard until he expresses an interest on his own (don't try to hook him up with someone).
posted by phrontist at 3:34 PM on October 2, 2007

Err... my paragraphs were somehow knocked out of order... pretend the last one is above the one on philosophy and it will be slightly less disjointed.
posted by phrontist at 3:34 PM on October 2, 2007

Send him over to Slacktivist, a blog by a guy who is a very progressive Christian who was raised in a very not-progressive church.

It's not specifically therapy-for-ex-fundies at all -- the writing is largely taking a "let's think about this logically" approach on politics, media, and religion from someone who thinks that the Bible is vital and has spiritual value (sorry for the very brief sum-up of your faith if you're reading this, Mr. Slacktivist, but can illustrate via chapter-and-verse how fundamentalist claims to take the Bible literally are...uh...not.

There's a lot of ways to reconcile your heart with your head, and he might enjoy reading the blogs of those who have transitioned into a faith that makes them happy, even if their family doesn't understand.
posted by desuetude at 3:37 PM on October 2, 2007

They let you down. Your parents, pastors, etc. force-fed absolute bullshit to a naive child, and they really should've known better. It's not your fault, and leaving was the right thing to do.

To be fair, the people who indoctrinated your friend were very likely the victims of similar abuse. It's a vicious cycle, and he will probably be better off in the long run if he forgives his parents and family for their weaknesses. It's not his fault, but it's not their fault either.
posted by phrontist at 3:38 PM on October 2, 2007 [1 favorite]

It's a vicious cycle, and he will probably be better off in the long run if he forgives his parents and family for their weaknesses.

I absolutely agree, but I think it's important for a recovering fundamentalist to recognize that they were wronged. It helps give structure and perspective to the vague feelings of guilt and confusion. Forgiveness should definitely follow, though.
posted by Mr. President Dr. Steve Elvis America at 3:46 PM on October 2, 2007

The rug has been pulled out from under him. What was a foundation of his life is now gone, and he is re-thinking what EVERYTHING means, and how he should behave in what is essentially a new world.

The best thing you can do is to be an ear if he wants to talk, affirm his value as a human being and a friend, and reassure him that life is a wonderful gift, regardless of how he chooses to express (or not) his spirituality.

It seems he still has faith in God, otherwise he wouldn't feel like he was disappointing God. Some reassurance from other people "of faith," but who don't feel the need to be involved in a formal church may be a great help. It might be too much for him to be involved in some "anti-church" movement. He just needs to know that his value exists outside of the framework he has gotten his value from previously.

E-mail is in profile.
posted by The Deej at 3:59 PM on October 2, 2007 [1 favorite]

The longer it goes, the fewer doubts your friend will have about burning in hell and that sort of nonsense. Those transition years can be pretty weird though, as you realize you don't know what you believe anymore.
posted by norm at 4:05 PM on October 2, 2007

Growing Up Goddy, a site that was mentioned earlier, is one that I started for similar reasons. I'd also point him to the excellent book The Myth of Certainty. It comes from a writer who's still a Christian, but addresses one of the most damaging and dangerous aspects of fundamentalism: the all-or-nothing absolute certainty one must have towards dogma to be accepted in the community. When that brick crumbled, the entire wall wasn't long to follow for me. Realizing that there were other good and honest and healthy people who didn't buy that part of the package was enough to bring me to tears of relief at a very, very difficult point in my life.
posted by verb at 4:05 PM on October 2, 2007 [1 favorite]

I am a pastor's daughter who hasn't gone to "church" for years.

I've recently found a solution that hasn't been mentioned so far: a different church. I've begun going to the Quaker meetings locally and I've found its a nice change. They don't argue doctrine so the difference in churches isn't an issue and I can still have that Sunday morning experience. Perhaps this can help your friend.
posted by aetg at 4:06 PM on October 2, 2007

I would recommend the Extian Mailing List. I was on it for a few years and there are plenty of people there with similar experiences who can help your friend sort out his thoughts and feelings, and give him a space to vent freely and hear lots of similar experiences. They won't push him to adopt another faith, to abandon theism or to discount atheism. There are also a few people there from the UK, so that may be of some help too.

If you would like to join them to ask their advice, they would probably welcome you. They generally only bar spammers and Christian evangelists from joining.

From my own experience and observing the experiences of friends, this is something akin to a grieving process. He will probably feel sad, angry, scared, confused, and regretful all at once. Once he fully rejects the system (i.e. stops being afraid of God), he may swing in completely the other direction to strict atheism and strong anti-religious sentiments. This usually balances to a middle ground after a while, but don't be surprised if it takes longer than you expect.

It's like breaking off a betrayed marriage. Depending on the level of your commitment and betrayal, you will react more or less strongly and require more or less time to recover. It sounds like your friend was very committed and took a lot of his self-image from the religion, and that will take a while to reconstruct.

Basic friend roles would include:
- someone to vent to;
- someone to hang out with;
- someone to distract from the issue when it's really needed;
- room to freak out and not be expected to 'get over it' immediately.

I also found reading other deconversion stories to be therapeutic. One of the best is christonastick's story on the Internet Infidels bulletin board.
posted by heatherann at 4:09 PM on October 2, 2007 [2 favorites]

Something others have brought up: one of the scariest things for a recovering fundamentalist is the fact that folks come out of the woodwork to tell you how great it is that you're finally wising up and giving up all that God crap.

Chances are, he's not. Chances are, he's really just grappling with genuine questions about his faith in a way that is unsupported and obliquely condemned in Fundamentalist circles. Laying on a thick slathering of "Woo, you can be an atheist now, too!" is basically playing by the script that fundamentalist Christians are given from day one.

If you're a friend of his already, chances are you've made it clear that he's a person you care for and are close to regardless of his beliefs. That's an important thing to keep in mind. A huge part of the fundamentalist/ideological experience is not about the specific beliefs themselves, but the belonging that one gets when one adopts them. Losing that is almost as scary as the anchorless feeling of questioning your own moral compass.
posted by verb at 4:12 PM on October 2, 2007

Chances are, he's not. Chances are, he's really just grappling with genuine questions about his faith in a way that is unsupported and obliquely condemned in Fundamentalist circles.

I can't tell you what the odds are one way or the other, but I can tell you that some ex-fundamentalists (myself included) did want someone to say "it's OK to just come out and say that Christianity is stupid, doesn't make any sense, and is totally wrong and made up. You don't have to pretend it's just 'questioning.'"

I don't know what the OP's friend wants, but fundamentalism can be extremely isolating (particularly from anything resembling rational thought) and it's immensely comforting to hear someone else you trust just say, "no, you're right, it doesn't make any sense." I spent years "questioning" when I had really long since given up on anything resembling faith because I didn't have the support I needed to stop "questioning" and just admit to myself what I had realized for so long already.
posted by Mr. President Dr. Steve Elvis America at 4:27 PM on October 2, 2007

Can't believe I'm the first to suggest sending him a copy of The God Delusion...
posted by zadcat at 4:37 PM on October 2, 2007

The whole process could take a long time before he reaches some kind of equilibrium. I was raised not-really-fundy-but-something-reasonably-close and when I read the Bible and realized it wasn't at all what I had been told it would be, that sent me into a long process of searching. I was pretty bitter for a while. For about three years I considered myself agnostic or atheist (depending on what day you asked me). But eventually I figured out that fundamentalism was a modern aberration, an extremely wrong-headed respond to Enlightenment brand rationalism, and nothing at all like historic Christianity. It wasn't Christianity that had let me down, it was one specific silly doctrinal package. When I was all done, I settled comfortably into a post-liberal faith stance, and eventually became a minister.

Which is all to say that there's no telling what's on the other side of this journey. If he wants a faith that makes sense to him, there are plenty of options outside of fundamentalism. If at some point he is interested in a healthy look at Christian faith, A Generous Orthodoxy by Brian McLaren is extremely accessible.

And if a chat with an ex-fundish, ex-atheist post-liberal minister would ever be of benefit, my email's in the profile.

But--in the early years of my faith crisis, what I usually wanted was just to go out and have a good time and learn to connect with more people who weren't part of a church. I wanted to really figure out how to make my way in the secular world, and then, when returning to faith or staying away were both possibly fulfilling options with support systems in place...only at that point could I really sit down and sort through what I really thought and wanted.

In some ways it's like leaving an abusive marriage. Maybe down the road there will be another person worth committing to, but for now, learning to be contentedly single is a good goal.
posted by Pater Aletheias at 5:15 PM on October 2, 2007 [1 favorite]

For too many reasons to get into here, I can tell you what he is going thru is common to all creeds and beliefs. What is the best way to help him specifically, will have alot to do with with what kind of church he has been attending. There is a vast difference between what those outside the church and those inside consider to be "fundamentalist." There is "crazy-I-hold-snakes-during-prayer" fundies, there are hellfire and brimstone fundies and there are those who are basically normal but adhere to a strict definition of saved vs. unsaved.

Broadly, however, as someone mentioned above ... the best thing to do is be his friend. Hang out. Do not judge. Specifically, do not judge right or wrong on his old beliefs or his new emerging ones. Let him decide where he wishes his belief system to go. He's probably been conditioned to believe it's bad to question what he's been taught. In truth, Thomas questioned Christ and in church histories has been listed repeatedly as "greatly loved of Christ." Asking questions both as a Christian and as a human being is a good thing ... ALWAYS. Blind faith is not faith at all, it's parroting. That's why so many solid denominations teach dialogue and debate. It enhances belief to have questions and find answers for them regardless of what answers you eventually find. Most fundamentalist churches have erased this from their teaching. The expect people to belief simply because it has been spoken by a "name."

One of the problems in the modern American "fundamentalist" church is the heavy judgement that is heaped on people deemed to have strayed, even a little bit. If his problem is merely doctrinal but he still has a modicum of faith, that the simple solution is to find another church that better fits his idealogy. With so many churches out there, surely he could find one. If his problem is truly a loss of faith, then really he must decide in time whether it a complete loss of faith bordering on atheism or if it is an issue of having belief but not being sure on what to base his "belief system" i.e. agnosticism.

Obviously, I am simplifying things here. Any Pastor or church leader worth their salt would be honest with him and tell him that according to the general dogma and frankly (imho) to God, it makes difference whether he attends church or not. It makes no difference whether he is perfect or not, after all that is what grace is for. All that matters according to the general creed is how he views the act of sacrifice on the Cross. Church leaders that don't preach that way do so either for money or power. There are still alot of good churches and leaders, in a broad cross-section of denominations and creeds that preach solid life-enhancing messages and truly do what they do for the love of people.
posted by damiano99 at 5:16 PM on October 2, 2007

Some churches really are abusive. There are a lot of fundamentalist churches that I would refuse to go to.

If your friend feels like talking to a sympathetic Christian who won't berate him give him my email (in my profile.)
posted by konolia at 5:20 PM on October 2, 2007

I can't tell you what the odds are one way or the other, but I can tell you that some ex-fundamentalists (myself included) did want someone to say "it's OK to just come out and say that Christianity is stupid, doesn't make any sense, and is totally wrong and made up. You don't have to pretend it's just 'questioning.'"
Coming to that place, though, isn't incompatible with "just questioning." For me, it certainly was important to accept 'questioning' before I could even contemplate giving up any aspect of faith. I was a pretty gung-ho "true Believer" though -- and when I started working through some of this stuff, the last thing I wanted was someone handing me a Richard Dawkins book -- he's the Josh McDowell of atheism.

If the original poster's friend is grappling with the idea that his unbelief is an offense to God, there is still a big element of residual dogma that shapes how he sees the world.

The first real step for me was realizing that the absolute certainty, the lock-step adherence to dogma that Fundamentalism requires, is not something inherent in broader Christian theology. The second was realizing that God, if He/She/It is in any way worth being called God, was not disturbed or rattled by my questions, my doubts, and my honest objections. An omniscient, omnipotent universe-controlling God has got to be pretty big-picture oriented, and if He gave a thumbs-up to David, someone who repeatedly questioned His existence and His goodness, my questions couldn't be that horrific.

The final stage, really, was accepting that if God was truly good, and valued truth, and understood the limitations of subjective, imperfect human beings (key aspects of fundamentalism), then God would not want me to lie to myself and others about what I found compelling, convincing, and believable. In other words, God would accept my unbelief. Obviously, that logical path sounds a little strange, a little goofy, and perhaps rather stupid to some of the posters here. Such is life.

Obviously, everyone's way out of Fundamentalism's tar-pit is different. But for me, that journey required a number of 'safe stops' along the way where I could take a breather, collect myself, and know that I was not alone and not just jumping from the comforting fold of Fundamentalist community to the scary, directionless world of unbelief.
posted by verb at 5:29 PM on October 2, 2007

I'm going to second aetg's suggestion of finding another, less fundie church. Depending on the reasons for his break, it could be very helpful.

And, like aetg, I was going to suggest Quaker meeting. I'm not a Quaker (an atheist, in fact) but since starting to date someone raised in that tradition have found the people to be nearly uniformly warm, welcoming, intelligent and thoughtful. And there's something...strangely wonderful about sitting in silence with a lot of other like-minded, loving people.

Unitarian services might also be of interest to your friend, although they're far more structured than unprogrammed meeting. My personal experience with them was rather awkward as there were enough resonances within the service to my (much disliked) Catholic background to make me very uncomfortable.

I know your friend isn't looking for another sect to join, but both Quakers and Unitarians will provide a source of people who believe in god (mostly...both are welcoming to avowed atheists) but who don't get hung up on doctrines or obedience and who prefer to search themselves and their lives for their answers.
posted by fuzzbean at 5:41 PM on October 2, 2007

Has he actually lost his faith, or is he re-evaluating what it means to be Christian? This will determine whether you should start throwing Dawkins at him or buy heavily annotated copies of the Bible and introduce him to more liberal versions of theology.

I am agnostic, but I was raised by a wonderful Christian dad who believed God was about love, not punishment. He feels the gods of all faiths are just separate aspects of the same being (how you live your life is what's important, not how you pray), evolution is real--but a beautiful complex creation of Him, and took a very scholarly approach to the Bible. I would be happy to talk with your friend about the possibilities of the Christian faith that go far outside the fire-and-brimstone set (that is my polite way of saying I think they have a really fucked-up view of the teachings of Christ).
posted by schroedinger at 5:42 PM on October 2, 2007

verb describe it beautifully above.
posted by schroedinger at 5:44 PM on October 2, 2007

You mentioned that he didn't have anyone he could talk to in his church, so one thing you can do is just to be that person. Just listening to his doubts and fears and possibly conflicting-from-day-to-day thoughts is a great service -- being his sounding board as he works through a scary and difficult time. Eventually he'll sort out what he does and doesn't believe, but especially if he's coming out of a repressive "don't question, don't speak, just follow" environment, he may just need to do a lot of venting.

Also, I think that reassuring him that he is a good person, that many people are good, decent, ethical, compassionate people with or without structured religion, might be helpful. He may be leaving a particular group or belief system, but that doesn't have to change who he innately is as a person. I think what (understandably) makes people freak about leaving a religion, career, domestic partnership, or other core element of their lives, is the loss of some "defining" structure, and one thing that helped me at times like that was reminding myself that the fundamental parts of myself would remain as they were regardless of those other things coming and going. A fair amount of the principles underlying the New Testament, after all, are just basic humanitarianism and kindness.
posted by FelliniBlank at 5:53 PM on October 2, 2007

i don't think it's at all uncommon for people to feel like this. i wouldn't badmouth that church--the last thing you want to do is make him feel stupid for being a part of it for so long.

very fundamentalist congregations tend to be authoritarian and if you grew up in them, it must be incredibly difficult to let go of that sense of (or fear of) judgment. to him it must seem like leaving his church is equal to abandoning his faith. he will need to learn to differentiate between those, and that can be hard.

so it seems to me that you can encourage his questions and listen to his doubts, and help him think through them. make sure he knows you think his judgment if he is in real trouble, a therapist wouldn't be a bad idea.

and this might sound a bit silly, but this is a good time for him to turn to his faith--even more so now that he doesn't have a church. if you are able to take him to a less-fundamentalist church, he may find some comfort in knowing that he can still embrace his faith.
posted by thinkingwoman at 6:28 PM on October 2, 2007

Kierkegaard observed that faith is only possibly from the position of doubt. Doubt is the necessary pre-condition for real faith. Real faith means fear and trembling. Real faith means asking questions, not swallowing answers. Real faith means understanding that celebrating the glory of God is not a joyous affirmation of received wisdom but an humbling bow before the ineffable. Real faith means using your mind, the first of God's gifts, to better understand the majesty of His creation. Real faith means celebrating the glory of God despite, not because.

The church he is leaving is not filled with bad people. It's filled with regular people with regular questions about important stuff. That they've picked a particularly rigid way to go about answering those questions says more about them that it does about God.

I read my ex-wife your question. During our time together, she went from fundie to wiccan to rediscovering the Catholicism of her childhood. Her reply was succinct:

"Why'd I leave the [insert her fundamentalist Christian church name here]? Because I missed my mind."

God is so big, yea, so enormously huge, that we are VERY impressed.
posted by BitterOldPunk at 6:49 PM on October 2, 2007 [3 favorites]

Possibly Ship of Fools might be an interesting place for him to look at and think about what he feels - it's a very eclectic 'Christian' discussion board including everyone from atheists and agnostics to a very few fundies with a preponderance to the liberal middle. There are people there who've had similar experiences. The support board is All Saints. The main debate board where people can thrash out questions is Purgatory. My partner and I are both non-believers from church backgrounds who hang out there precisely because we still enjoy arguing and thinking about religion and the standard of debate is very good.
posted by Flitcraft at 6:53 PM on October 2, 2007

My friend has lost his faith but despite this feels he is a sinner against the god he no longer believes in. Fundamentalist Christianity hasn't been a good experience for him and he doesn't want to stay in his current church, or to explore other sects/faiths at the moment.

Faith is a will-based thought reform, by getting people to want to achieve success in a thought system for self-validation. When people remove themselves from its influence (because, genetically, they aren't so easily hypnotized by the power of suggestion), then their recovery is all about confronting any implanted conclusions or brainwashing that needs them to fail, or wants them to feel like a failure. In fact, they have achieved a rare success, but they need to deal with the former self-righteous thoughts that are now turning against the host as self-condemnation.
posted by Brian B. at 7:03 PM on October 2, 2007

Wow. . .I went through the same thing (i.e., lost my faith after a fundamentalist upbringing) just two years ago. . .here are some thoughts from my journey. . .

He likely will be pretty depressed for a while, and I don't know there's any way around that. Part of the depression comes from waking up some morning and realizing that everything you thought fair and beautiful and noble about the world was a myth at best, and a lie at worst. Another part of the depression comes from that absolutely sinking feeling knowing that, to continue to be an honest person, you will have to tell people that you care about deeply that you no longer share their deepest held beliefs, beliefs that give them hope and purpose and meaning. Finally some of the depression comes from realizing that you spent some of the prime years of your life suppressing who you are in order to fit into a religious straightjacket.

I wouldn't recommend bashing the church or Christians too much. I was a bit put off when I first left the faith because some nonbelievers give the impression they consider all Christians intolerant, bigoted, and ignorant and think that the church has been purely a source of evil in the world. Even after I lost my faith I still felt an attachment and fondness for the people and places I left behind. Be there for him, though, as he vents all the bad parts of the church.

Don't feel like you have to and catch him up on all the vices he may have missed - just invite him to do normal-people stuff and let him pick and choose what he likes and dislikes. If he isn't married or in a relationship now, you might need to help him enter the dating world at some point - the assumptions that guide fundy/evangelical dating (*cough* courting *cough*) are. . .interesting. . .

Introduce him to some good, soulful music that is not measured by the number of Jesus references per minute.

Help him to understand that his time as a Christian can be considered a learning and growing process and not a miserable waste of time - I actually kind of appreciate the fact that I had the chance to be "on the inside" of a large, influential subculture, if only so that I can relate to the way that a lot of people think and act.

In the weeks and months to come, see if you can connect him with a new set of friends. Church provides a ready-made social network and it is easy to be a Christian and not know even one "nonbeliever" on a more-than-surface level. I still struggle, two years later, to get into a nonreligious circle of friends.

It really is great that you want to understand where he's coming from and help him through this - I wish I had had a nonbelieving friend like you when I left the faith. Good luck!
posted by sherlockt at 7:21 PM on October 2, 2007

I went through the same thing about 15 years ago, after being raised in the same kind of church. It was a very gradual process for me (about 5 years), punctuated by a few epiphanies along the way.

Depending on how insightful your friend is, I agree that time is a good remedy for how he's feeling. Follow his lead; don't be pushy, don't knock his church or his old beliefs, and don't be surprised if he fluctuates in different directions as he sorts this out. For people in his situation, this is like discovering the person you thought was your mother actually adopted you. He has so many issues to consider at once that he'll be kind of overwhelmed for a while.

Meantime, just be the friend you've been to him.
posted by Rykey at 9:12 PM on October 2, 2007

I like phrontist's advice. For me (raised from birth in the U.P.C.I. and have a brother, brother-in-law, grandfather and a few uncles who are preachers) discovering that there were other experiences in the world that produced the same sort of emotional experience as the church was very important. This included rock concerts, music, movies (I was eighteen when I first saw a movie in a movie theatre), big cities, parties & conversations with people who were smart & accomplished & NOT religious.

I'm not so sure if books like the God Delusion will really be helpful at this point. But literature & philosophy in general were important in my un-churching. A pivotal book was Catcher in the Rye in grade 11. My sister and I were in the same english class. I procrastinated reading the book (though I was quite the book buff, reading several per week). My sister & mother were all up in arms about the book, rejecting it as filth. When I finally read it, I really liked it of course, as a smart alienated teenager. The fact that a few swear words & a reference to sex made my sister & mother were unable to appreciate how insightful & human the book was really made me start to question the validity of the culture in which I'd been raised.

Also he should desensitize to the fear of hell. Get him to hang out in a sauna and think about hell. Go through the fear, nightmares for a while in my case at least, and get it over with.
posted by lastobelus at 11:51 PM on October 2, 2007

Buy him any/all of the books by John Shelby Spong, one of the great iconoclasts of modern Christian scholarship. Tremendously comforting, as well as food for thought.
posted by jbickers at 3:05 AM on October 3, 2007 [1 favorite]

Hi. I left a church that was more of a cult. Suggest therapy to relieve some of the cognitive dissonance. There's not much other advice I can give you... it's sort of a personal journey. Just let your friend know he's not the only one. If you'd like to read my story, it's here, and please forgive the self-link.
posted by IndigoRain at 8:32 AM on October 3, 2007

N-thing be there for him - is it the type of group that doesn't let you associate with non-members, except for the purposes of evangelising? And is his family involved? If so, he is losing his family as well as his church community/friends/possibly entire social circle, and that is tough. Help him to explore new avenues for making friends.

Also - is he very angry? I was angry for several years after I left the group into which I was born and raised, and found it very useful/healing to channel all that anger (into capital-A activism, but you might help your friend explore his options - sport or a creative pursuit, or even just a punching bag). Letting him rant and not taking anything he says personally are good things you can do.

If he says he isn't interested in other groups/churches at this point, don't press the issue. Understand that the way he feels about religion at this time is extreme and may change. For many years after I left the church of my childhood I was very anti-religion, and thought that people of faith must be weak or lacking, as my only experiences of religion were that of the ridiculous group and therefore all religion was ridiculous. Similarly, if the group is coercive and restrictive, his ability to think and act for himself is most likely impaired, so understand that he may need some assistance to start making decisions and trusting himself.

Has he googled the name of the church to see if there are any other former members online? I left the group of my childhood pre-internet, but was shocked/glad to google them a few years ago and find a wealth of resources for/by ex-members - messageboards, email lists and online support groups, even people writing books asking for subjects for interview about the church. So there may be supportive resources available to him that he should look into.

Finally, do encourage him to seek therapy if you can, particularly if he has been in the church a long time. It can be really hard to unlearn the crap, and a competent professional is most likely the best person to assist.

There are many of us who have been through it and come out (mostly) okay - go friend of anonymous!! We're rooting for ya.
posted by goo at 9:36 AM on October 3, 2007

As someone who's been there, it's like a divorce. Treat him accordingly. It'll get better.
posted by mynameismandab at 4:56 PM on October 3, 2007

Why help? Support, don't help. There is a difference.
Ideas stick when their you're own.

posted by Mblue at 2:56 AM on October 27, 2007

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