Having spent the first 32 years of my life in an evangelical environment (including family, church, mission boarding school, college, seminary, missionary society), I have a mostly positive view of evangelicals as people. Certainly there are many exceptions, but on balance, I respect the warmth, sincerity, self-sacrifice, discipline, and love of many of the more earnest followers of Jesus. I attend my wife’s Bible church only very occasionally, perhaps three or four times a year for special occasions. One such special occasion was a recent “father-daughter desert” I went to with my thirteen-year-old daughter (and with my wife, who attended with her father). In addition to the food, there were some fun games and a talent show; a fun, wholesome time was had by all. Everyone was respectful, positive, and friendly, and there was a good mix of ages and gender (though not so much of race).
I mentally compared this experience with the one I had at a large weekend freethought convention I attended last fall. The respective goals of the two events were quite different, of course, so it’s probably unfair to compare them in any way, but I found myself struggling to identify with many of the presenters and attendees at the freethought convention. There were some families and a children’s program, but it seemed that most of the attendees were single; there were more men than women; almost everyone was white, and there were probably more middle-aged-and-above attendees than younger adults, with hardly any children. Many (not all) of the presenters made liberal use of expletives and focused a good deal of their ire on their religious competitors. We all received a complimentary condom in our welcome packet, and the evening social gatherings were centered around the hotel bar.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not speaking out against expletives, singleness, condoms, or drinking per se. What I’m trying to get at is a little more intangible. For many evangelicals like me, coming to the conclusion that we were mistaken in our evangelical beliefs is, relatively speaking, the easy part. The harder part is that we still appreciate the general warmth, family focus, and respectfulness of the evangelical community, qualities that are harder to find (though not altogether absent) in the freethinking community.
In a recent response to one of my blog posts, a believer referred to the following passage from John 6, suggesting there’s nowhere else to turn for those who leave Jesus:
66 From this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him.
67 “You do not want to leave too, do you?” Jesus asked the Twelve.
68 Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom shall we go?...”
Incidentally, I’ve been reading a long, fascinating e-book (An Examination of the Pearl) by Edwin Suominen, a struggling member of a tiny (about 100,000 members), little-known exclusivist Lutheran sect called Conservative Laestadianism (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Conservative_Laestadianism). According to the author, the above passage from John 6 is often used by the Laestadian leadership to deter its members from leaving the sect (see location 1984), since its members are led to see only darkness outside its walls, even in the wider “mainstream” Christian community.
Getting back to the freethinking movement, I have no doubt that the perceived and/or actual culture of the freethought movement is one of the most important barriers to believers who might otherwise contemplate leaving their faith. “To whom shall we go? Certainly not to those family-unfriendly, foul-mouthed, arrogant, fornicating, drunken atheists!”
I’ll probably catch some flack for this from some of my fellow freethinkers, but as a long-time-evangelical-turned-unbeliever, it seems to me that struggling Christians are looking for a more comfortable landing pad than the cold, hard, unfamiliar ground they often hit on the other side of faith. I’m speaking on behalf of the doubting Christians who don’t particularly have a problem with other Christians or with the evangelical lifestyle but who simply doubt the tenets of their faith. I have in mind those who have placed a premium on sexual purity as believers and those whose social lives have been lived largely in the church, free of profanity or drunkenness or “worldliness” in general. For many longstanding members of the freethought movement, Christians like those I’ve described here seem to be from another planet, and that feeling goes in both directions.
I don’t have a ready solution to the hard-landing problem. I can’t necessarily expect those from Planet Wordly to change their lifestyle radically just to provide a softer landing to those coming in from Planet Purity. But somehow someone somewhere needs to be there for each new arrival, and the greeter needs to be someone the new arrival can connect with, trust, and have something in common with. It needs to be someone who’s at least sensitive to the gap in lifestyle choices between that of the typical earnest evangelical and that of the typical unbeliever. Keep in mind that many of these recent deconverts are struggling to maintain relationships with their believing family members. It’s already bad enough that they no longer share their most cherished beliefs in common with family any more; they don’t want to exacerbate matters any more than necessary by completely changing their lifestyle at the same time. I’m simply asking those from Planet Worldly to understand the predicament that new arrivals from Planet Purity find themselves in, to get a feel for where they are, and to meet them at that place. They’ve already sacrificed enough to give up what they believe; don’t expect them to adopt your lifestyle or your differing views on politics or morality. If an Orthodox Jew leaves his faith, don’t wave a ham sandwich in his face and expect him to give up his lifelong hangup over pork. If a conservative evangelical Christian leaves her faith, don’t litter your speech with expletives and tell sexually explicit jokes or share your sexual exploits. Of course, how you relate to former believers will depend on where they are and to what extent they continue to embrace elements of their former lifestyle.
That said, I’m not sure how effective the sensitivity I’m advocating really can be. I think some sensitivity can’t hurt, but the new arrivals are probably not going to be as comfortable with a Puritan “poser” as they would be with someone else who’s from a hybrid third planet that I’ll call “Planet Purity without Belief.” This is a sparsely populated planet of those who’ve left their faith but who retain more or less a similar lifestyle to the one they embraced on “Planet Purity with Belief.” Those who’ve deconverted and still inhabit “Planet Purity without Belief” have a unique perspective and set of experiences that can and should be used to help conservative believers who are transitioning out of faith.
As a general rule (which has its exceptions, of course), it seems that freethinkers and humanists are more concerned with structural/societal justice than with personal morality, while for conservative Christians it’s the other way around. Secular humanists couldn’t care less what anyone does in their bedroom, while they generally do care about avoiding war and providing justice for the poor, the oppressed, and the minorities. Vice versa for many American evangelicals.
Week after week in church services, congregations are enjoined to eschew the acts of the flesh and to cultivate personal virtues like the fruit of the Spirit in Galations 5:
19 The acts of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; 20 idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions 21 and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God.
22 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law.
By and large, those outside the church are not encouraged on a weekly basis to cultivate such virtues. A debate can be had as to which of the above admonitions should be heeded by us nonbelievers (I don’t know any freethinkers who engage in witchcraft, for example!), but it seems to me that we would do well to give some thought to our personal morality, just as we would like conservative evangelicals to give more thought to matters of social justice. Acts and words of kindness and patience, rather than outbursts of disdain toward those we disagree with, would go a long way to breaking down the mistrust that no doubt prevents many evangelicals from reaching out across the divide. Sensitivity to the mores of others, rather than their dismissal as “prudish,” would also no doubt help bridge that gap.
Just as religion is not monolithic (the Muslim Brotherhood and the Conservative Laestadians certainly wouldn’t get along!), neither is freethought. Though no doubt most are left of center, freethinkers are found at virtually every point along the political and moral spectrum. I don’t know whether I’ll ever feel fully comfortable in a typical freethought convention, and I’m sure I’m not the only former believer in that position. To be sure, I share much in common with the predominant freethought culture, but I also share much in common with my wife, family, and former coreligionists. It’s not a matter of which one is superior to the other; that could lead to endless debates. It’s more a matter of where we all find ourselves in this sometimes convoluted journey called life and what we can do to make the best of it, both for ourselves and for our fellow travelers in this journey. Perhaps as more and more evangelicals leave the faith for intellectual rather than for moral reasons, the population of “Planet Purity without Belief” will grow and will serve as a softer landing pad for those arriving from “Planet Purity with Belief.” I don’t envision this planet being populated with moral crusaders but with those who simply continue to feel comfortable embracing family values and cultivating personal virtue as they did during their years in the church. No doubt some on this planet will go on to migrate to Planet Wordly, and that’s fine with me (within reason), but I would hope that our numbers would be sufficient to form a community for those of us who find ourselves caught between Planet Purity (with Belief) and Planet Worldly (without Belief).