I was a moderately conservative Christian in college, but am now an agnostic Christian. I don't know if God exists, and don't think anyone can -- but I don't have the need, capability or desire to discard the family traditions that I grew up with, or the sundry other Christian influences on my identity. I have, however, dropped out of the church and Bible study groups that previously had been the center of my life, socially as well as religiously. Because I am shy, busy and didn't move for grad school, most of my social connections and friendships (and all of the close ones) are still from these Christian groups. I still see my friends, but much less frequently, and I've lost a lot of the emotional connection. I never made an explicit statement about my beliefs or departure, but I suspect most people know. No one has asked me -- I'd almost feel better if someone did, rather than seeming not to care. But maybe they really don't know.
Should I explicitly (i.e., bring up the topic) mention my beliefs and my reasons for being uninvolved? I'd risk being even more isolated than I now am, but maybe I should give people the chance to respond to me naturally. Also, this would be a very unfun conversation to have, and I don't want people to try to argue with me. Should I put something on my site or profile instead? Write a letter?
After that, any ideas where I might find people who are not religiously conservative but who aren't hateful of religion either? Such people must exist, but my experience -- a former conservative Christian working in scientific research -- has been ... polarized.
Missing the Flock
Dear Missing the Flock,
I grew up in a family of nonbelievers in a heavily Christian Southern town. So I know what it is like to be an outsider. I know what it is like to be scorned for your lack of belief. But I have no idea what it is like to belong to a church, nor what it is like to leave one.
My intuition tells me that the best way to approach this would be to pick one or two people you trust, who seem most capable of hearing you out, and tell them what you have arrived at.
But while I think that my own speculations may prove of some limited interest, the people to listen to are those who have gone through what you are about to go through.
This in particular I find interesting: the story of one James Buckner, like yourself a scientist, who writes, "I was a sincere, dedicated Christian, seriously trying to live the Christian life, and I lost faith as a result of studying the Bible quite contrary to my own wish."
His account of how he left the faith, how he dealt with his pastor and his relatives, and how he attempted to reforge the relationships that were disrupted by his deconversion, addresses many of your questions in a way that only someone who has been through the experience could do. I think that many of the answers you seek about how to conduct yourself through what will be a wrenching and difficult process of transformation will be found in the writings and discussion of those such as Buckner who have gone before you.
Also of interest were some of the stories posted on exchristian.net.
I can only add, from an outsider's perspective, the hope that you will be able to find strength in knowing that the kind of intellectual struggle you are going through is a proud and vital process, one that we in this nation ought to commend, as reason, not faith, is the bulwark of democracy.
I hope you do not waste too much time in fruitless dispute with those who out of care and concern will try to lure you back into belief, since faith can neither be argued into or out of someone but must arrive and depart according to its own capricious schedule. Indeed, faith seems to be largely a matter of faith.
Note the circular reasoning of one of Buckner's relatives, i.e., "If you accept and practice Christianity and it is false you have essentially lost nothing. If you reject Christianity and it is true, then you have lost everything." This is astounding, is it not? It suggests that our nature is not to love truth and seek it, but to love comfort and to play the odds. Such a utilitarian view strikes at the heart of faith itself, which is powerful because it is real, not because it is utilitarian.
Perhaps I should not make too much of that. But the narrow common ground we secularists have with Christians is in part the assumption that they have found religion in seeking the truth. If they have found religion simply in seeking the best deal, that's a different story -- it tends to make one less sanguine about the sanctity and power of that belief.
At any rate, if you discover the truth and it makes you uncomfortable, what are you to do? Ignore the truth in order to stick with what makes you comfortable? No, I do not think that is the admirable choice. I think the admirable choice is to face what makes you uncomfortable.
Welcome to all our discomfort, fellow questioner!
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