The list below is a bit of advice for Christians who want to stay close to their deconverted (or deconverting) friends. Here are some remarks that you should probably avoid saying to your friend or acquaintance who has opened up about their doubts and lack of belief:
1. “You were never a true Christian.”
Variants on this include: “Oh, I’m glad that you are now thinking for yourself instead of just following a tradition. Good for you. I hope that someday you find Jesus.” Comments like these imply that the person you are talking to does not understand what it is like to really believe or to have profound religious experiences. Don’t try to interpret someone’s life story for them. While it’s understandable that you (as a devout believer) feel that this person must have missed something important, it isn’t your place to question their sincerity or honesty about their past beliefs. You won’t be showing any love to former believers by placing your “true faith” on a pedestal above their “false” or “empty” faith. And no, telling people “I used to hate religion too, but then I found Jesus” really isn’t a convincing line either. Many ex-Christians have moving stories of personal conversions, restless nights spent in prayer and hours of searching the Scripture seeking to know and understand God. Telling them that you found God by reading the Bible and praying can be like putting salt in an open wound.
2. “Why are you angry at God?”
Many people really don’t believe in God. They really don’t. I know this might seem weird to you. Right now you might be saying to yourself “maybe deep down inside they really do believe in God. Who could look at the stars and deny that there is a Creator?” As strongly as you might feel this, keep in mind that it is your perspective and not the perspective of your ex-Christian friend. Your friend may have mixed feelings about the possibility of God; they may be a deist, or they may be an outright atheist and no longer hold to any belief in the supernatural.
Anger is a normal human emotion. People can be angry at all sorts of things and sometimes for bad reasons. Like point 1 above, don’t try to explain someone else’s story for them. If they say to that to them God is now as real as Santa Claus or the Tooth Fairy, then why not take them at their word? Just because they may not like the religion that they grew up, and may have some hard words to say about their former beliefs, that does not mean that they now “hate God.”
For many ex-Christians “God” is a concept that they let go of in pieces. They may take some comfort in deism or pantheism for a time. They may explore other religions and possibly even convert to one. Many are not able to find another religious tradition that they can believe in and so by default they come to realize that they are atheists. It can be a scary place for them, because for many years they were used to believing that God was up there, watching them. Letting go of God means that instead of relating to God as a person they learn to relate to God as an idea instead. God is not up there handing out eternal rewards and giving guidance, but he is also not present judging, condemning or “testing” them either. For many that last part comes as a huge relief. Living life without God makes a lot of sense to many ex-Christians. To tell them that they must still have a secret belief in the Christian God can be deeply offensive. Just imagine how upset you would be if a Muslim said “deep down inside, you know that Mohammed is God’s messenger. You are just too stubborn to accept it.”
3. “Atheists don’t have any moral foundations.”
Or (slightly better): “Where do you get your morals from now?”
This question can be good in some contexts. If you really want to get into a discussion on moral values–what they are and where they come from–then certainly some atheists will be interested in taking the time needed to have that conversation (it’s a complex and tricky subject). Many won’t though and there are several reasons why:
- Atheists and ex-Christians are able to be good people. They don’t see any reason why their own apparent goodness needs to be called into account. Doesn’t their life speak for itself? (get ready for justifiably angry glares from any ex-Christian if you try to trot out Romans Road…ex-Christians already know these Biblical arguments and they have their own reasons for rejecting them)
- Ex-Christians have serious reservations about the supposedly objective morality that can be found in the pages of Scripture. They have thought long and hard about the implications of Yahweh sanctioning genocide, being lenient on rapists, treating women as property, and the acceptance of slavery throughout the Bible. On top of this they may also have issues with how the God of the Bible is portrayed in many Christian denominations. He is a wrathful judge that can only be placated by a brutal sacrifice of an innocent being? The punishment for any amount of sin is an eternity of misery and torment? For many former believers this picture of God is anything but just or good.
- There are humanist systems of ethics and morals. They don’t fully line up with how a devout Christian would normally think of ethics and moral duties, but that isn’t the point. Many atheists get frustrated by this question simply because it shows that the Christian has done little to no research on the topic and yet still seems to be interested in scoring a point in their favor (an equivalent atheist question would be “why do Christians condemn homosexuals just because of one verse in Leviticus?” or “why don’t Christians follow the Old Testament laws about stoning?”). Morality has been discussed outside of the context of religion and gods for millennia. It’s nothing new for non-theists to have moral systems and to value certain types of actions over others. They might have a different rationale (they aren’t afraid of any eternal punishment) but that doesn’t mean that they are incapable of acting morally or that they can’t reason about ethical issues.
4. “I’ll pray for you.”
Don’t. Just don’t. I know you think it’s nice and comforting, but really you can pray for someone without advertising that fact. This comment also creates a lot of unnecessary awkwardness. “I’ll pray for you.” “ummm…Ok. I’ll think for you.” Or maybe your ex-Christian friend will just say “Thanks,” but what they are really thinking is “Prayer doesn’t really do anything. Didn’t I just tell them I don’t believe in Christianity? Was I not clear enough?”
This remark can feel like a form of social pressure as well. Depending on the person’s background in the Christian faith this type of comment can come across as incredibly condescending and self-righteous. A good rule is that if a former Christian doesn’t explicitly ask for prayer, don’t volunteer it. Following this simple rule won’t prevent you from praying for your friend while in your private “prayer closet.” It will help to keep your relationship with that friend warm and respectful.
5. “Just have faith.”
Chances are good that the person you are talking to has already tried this. Many “extimonies” are filled with grief and hard emotions. There are quite a few people who wanted God to be real, but could not continue to hold onto belief as their knowledge increased and their experiences of life changed. We may want to believe, but we also want to think. Ex-Christians feel that their reasons for leaving the faith are strong enough to overcome their own personal subjective feelings (their “faith”). Some of us are not able to maintain our faith in the Bible when we see all of the contradictions. Some Ex-Christians come to a stage in their life where they realize that “faith” simply doesn’t mean what it used to for them and they can no longer muster up the same level of conviction that they once had. It’s impossible to command belief. We are all on our own journeys. We didn’t necessarily choose to disbelieve, and now that we are here it’s not as though we can flip a switch in our brains and go back.
I wrote this list based on my own experiences and based upon things that I’ve heard repeated (over and over again) in ex-Christian forums. After typing this up I discovered another blogger going into more depth on a similar topic: 15 Things Not to Say to a Recovering Fundamentalist
Note: What this particular author means by “fundamentalism” is not how I use the word on my blog. When I talk about Christian Fundamentalism I am referring primarily to dogma (the “fundamentals” that you are required to believe in order to be part of certain groups) and only lightly touching on practice (conservative Christian culture and how seriously people take their doctrines).