I'm an African-American agnostic in a sea of Baptist believers

Every Sunday I sit in the pew, full of doubt, next to my conservative Christian wife.

By Cary Tennis

Published April 21, 2009 10:15AM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

I'm "stepping out on faith" here, but could you offer me some helpful advice and/or suggestions? I am an African-American male who, after several years of being a conservative, evangelical Christian, now considers myself to be a "Jesus-admiring, agnostic humanist" who also attends weekly church services at a predominantly African-American Missionary Baptist congregation with my conservative Christian wife. In light of this, I have long agonized over the idea of announcing my philosophical position to my Christian spouse, family and friends.

I feel that I am now at a point where I must make a declaration that will surely affect those who are close to me. My loved ones have long suspected that there was something "different" about my approach to spiritual subjects, but up until now I have successfully hidden my true thoughts, philosophical developments and feelings from them.

  • With every Sunday that I sit in a church that would likely condemn my kind, I feel like I am betraying my potential and misleading my spouse.
  • With every public prayer uttered "in Jesus' name" I feel like I am living a lie.
  • With every in-depth discussion about religious and social topics, I use evasive humor and agile commentary to distract my conversation partners -- fearing that a sustained encounter would lead to the exposure of my controversial religious and philosophical views.

But one can only do this for so long before wondering if such attempts to suppress one's true self for fear of offending the sensibilities of others is really worth it. One can only maintain a facade so long before wondering if doing so also erodes one's sense of integrity while also denying loved ones the opportunity to know, understand and accept the "true" you.

I am a husband who desires to have a lifelong union of honesty and transparency with my wife and a father who desires to raise up a compassionate, critical thinker. But I'm afraid of losing those I love by being honest about my current views.

The courageous part of me wants to respectfully challenge majority opinion and proclaim my philosophical position unambiguously; but the sensitive part of me seeks to remain in hiding -- fearing the vulnerability that comes with such exposure and the heartbreak that such full disclosure could bring to those I love. This part of myself also wants to keep the facade up so that I don't offend my loved ones.

Is it selfish of me to desire to fearlessly be myself? Am I confusing cautious wisdom with cowardly withdrawal?

I know that when asking for advice or wise counsel from anyone one must consider their own unique context and situation, realizing that those who offer advice are doing so from their own unique contexts and situations. But I'm also a fool enough to believe that there are certain principles and approaches for "coming out" that could apply to minorities of all stripes, be they freethinkers, atheists, homosexuals or Jehovah's Witnesses.

I wonder: What are those principles?

If you have made an announcement to your loved ones about who you believe you "truly" are, what seemed to work best in your situation? What didn't seem to work? What should I expect as I continue in my attempts to disclose my "true self"? What should I keep in mind? I look forward to your responses. Thank you in advance.

Really struggling with this one,

Churchgoing Agnostic

Dear Churchgoing Agnostic,

One of the principles of "coming out" is the presumption of innocence -- that we are innocent of our own existence, that we did not make ourselves and we did not make the world, and that in revealing who we are and what we see, we simply reveal what is already there. We are not confessing to a crime. We are revealing our existence.

What we ask for in doing so is simple recognition: We desire to be seen. We put aside for the time being the question of our effect on others. We leave it up to others what they should do about who we are.

That does not mean they will do what we want. If we have been sufficiently skillful in constructing our false self, those who love us may indeed love this false self, and may greet with consternation the arrival of what we consider to be our authentic self.

So in coming out we ask, Can you still love me, knowing who I am?

Perhaps the answer is no. Perhaps our partner has fallen in love with the character of our creation.

That is frightening, is it not?

So in discovering who we are and admitting it to ourselves, we must at the same time begin the hard process of finding love for this previously unloved-because-unrevealed self. We begin by loving ourselves.

Now, of course, in a way your wife does love exactly who you are. I feel sure that there is something about your questioning nature, your rational mind, your courage, your clear-eyed vision, that she does love deeply. Nonetheless, when we reveal who we really are, it changes the nature of love. It changes how we are loved, and for what. She can no longer love you as a churchgoing man if you stop going to church.

And there is the frightening possibility hovering at the edges that our lover might not love us at all, but only the false self we have presented. We do love characters in movies and books that are not real. Why should we not fall in love with other invented characters? For that matter, how could anyone love our true self if we have kept our true self secret?

So you risk a lot. But you risk it for the biggest prize of all: to be loved for who you really are.

As to the effect your revelation may have on others, whether it is selfish: If you believe their beliefs are wrong, then in speaking out you are helping them. They can only benefit from hearing what you say. They can only benefit from the truth. If their beliefs are wrong, they are wasting their time in church and the sooner they stop wasting their time the better off they will be.

Now, if they left the church, they might lose community standing and fellowship. But truth is our highest quest, is it not? But perhaps you secretly fear that they are right. Well, there too, by confessing your doubt you are doing them a favor: You are giving them the opportunity to save you. Let them try.

I appreciate that you have addressed your question not just to me, but to the many who give of themselves here, many with more relevant knowledge and experience than mine. I hope you will find much here of value as people weigh in, and I hope you will be able to take what you need and leave the rest. I also appreciate your concern for those in your life who might be upset by your revelation, and how you try to balance your own need to disclose your truth with the consternation it may cause them.

May I say one thing regarding my own perhaps crazy beliefs on the subject? I really believe it is possible that a grace exists in the universe that in caring for you and saving you does not care one whit whether you believe in it or not, and does not care what you think is true: a grace whose intelligence is so freely boundless and beyond us that whatever we think of it does not even occur to it, or occurs to it the way the consternation of a dog occurs to us when we bathe it. We take note of the consternation of the dog but we do not find it persuasive; we already know what we're going to do with the dog. We're going to bathe the dog.

I just had to say that. Good luck with your loved ones.

Thinking about thinking? Think about this.

Makes a great gift. Can be personalized for the giftee of your choice. Signed first editions on sale now.

What? You want more advice?


Cary Tennis

MORE FROM Cary TennisFOLLOW carytennisLIKE Cary Tennis

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Atheism Since You Asked