I was at home last week, and I had to put up with a bunch of my family’s weird friends. I stayed silent the whole time, because I’ve never told them what I really believe, and I really wished I could speak out.
My brother was there—let’s call him “Bob”—along with his girlfriend, his other friends, and one of those friend’s fiancée. All of them, like my family, believe in a 6,000-year-old earth, that evolution is an assault against Christianity, and in speaking in tongues.
The fiancée talked about this great book she was reading—it’s an allegory where a man marries a prostitute and ‘saves’ her. He shows her her worth, rescues her from the sex trade, etc. It’s based on the book of Hosea. It really didn’t sound like the kind of story that would make sense in a modern context, especially when she said the man married the prostitute practically against her will.
Then the other friend kept talking in this over-spiritualized language, that made him sound incredibly fake. But I don’t think he was being fake. I think he’s just studied pastoring and spirituality at his college so much that he doesn’t know how else to talk.
He asked the other friend’s fiancée about how she “operates within the gift of prophecy.” The fiancée said she does in fact have the gift of prophecy. She doesn’t tell the future, though. Instead, prophecy is giving a message from God to God’s people. It can be a word of encouragement, a word of correction, anything like that.
This definition of prophet is actually pretty common in some evangelical circles. It has great advantages for the practitioners—it feels really good to believe God is speaking to you through prophecies, but you don’t have that pesky “check to see if the prophecies come true” requirement given in the Bible. (Deut. 18:22).
For this woman, prophecy means she’s not afraid to say the “hard truths” that need to be said. The example she gave was, she’s from an atheist family. When she was alone with her atheist uncle’s young kids, she started telling them all about how Jesus came to save them, how everyone lives in sin, how they’ll go to hell without Jesus and what hell means. She terrified those kids and they went back to their atheist dad scared of hell. And I didn’t say anything about this.
The fiancée has another friend who’s a prophet, and this prophet does in fact tell the future. Or rather, God reveals the future to her; she usually doesn’t say it until it’s the right time to reveal it. In other words, when something happens, she says ‘I knew this was going to happen, but I couldn’t tell you.’ Even the fiancée said this makes her incredulous, but apparently she trusts her friend.
The example she gave of it working was, this friend knew the fiancee’s boyfriend was going to propose. She called him up and asked if he had bought the ring yet, right as he was praying and wondering who he should take ring shopping with him. It’s a very cool coincidence, and I would have called it God at work when I was a Christian, but it seems awfully empty compared to the other claims being made here.
They talked about speaking in tongues. They know of some church where the pastor speaks in tongues and then ‘interprets’ what the Holy Spirit said through him. The fiancée was incredulous at first, but they encouraged her to believe that we don’t know how the Holy Spirit works, so that could be true.
My brother mentioned a story my dad tells about a pastor who did that same thing. Dad says the message turned out to be basically the same every time, centering on a few of his favorite themes. The people didn’t seem to think this had any repercussions for the other pastor who does it.
Some of those things would have made sense to me, back when I was a believer. But now as I look at them I’m a bit shocked. Was I really like that? Are believers really out of their minds? It seems like they shut down all critical thinking when it comes to anything with the word “God” attached to it.
I really wished I could speak up, and say anything. It feels unnatural to stay silent. When I was a Christian, I would have shared my own experiences with prophecy, or my own insights on gifts of the spirit. I would probably have questioned the self-interpreting pastor, and maybe questioned the retroactive prophet, even as a Christian. I may have cautioned the fiancée to be loving and respectful, even as she shares the truth. As a Christian, I could have spoken out without fear, knowing that we both still believed in Jesus so if we got in an argument, it wouldn’t be a big deal. Now as an atheist I feel I have to stay silent for fear they’ll figure me out.
And then afterwards, some of us went up to the church and jammed. We played those worship songs I grew up with and I still love. I love playing bass, but I never get the chance except in church, and playing with these guys was so high-energy. All my frustration at the rest of the evening just evaporated.
Why is playing music so wonderful? Where could I go to play music like that if I was an atheist? They wouldn’t invite me along to their worship sessions. I don’t currently have any non-believer friends, much less friends who would get together and just jam for a while. Plus, worship music still means so much to me.
I feel like I’ve lost a lot by becoming an atheist.
How do you guys react? Do you have places in your real life where you are able to argue respectfully with Christians? Do you ever have to sit through and shut up with your religious family?
You commented "Now as an atheist I feel I have to stay silent for fear they’ll figure me out."
If you tell them you're an atheist they will still not "figure you out." Rational thinking is not their strong suit. Your interactions with them would definitely be more lively and interesting if you were to reveal your true identity. It is your responsibility to provoke them to actually think about why they hold these stone age beliefs. I would no longer "sit through and shut up" while they pat one another on the back with religious drool.
Take a stand. Man up.
Normally Ed, I'd agree with you 100%, and the fact that I began questioning the religious beliefs of my family at 12, would back that up, but Physeter made a good point:
"...when they go all woo but I will sometimes assert an alternative interpretation. If I agree with the emotional sentiment behind something they attribute to the supernatural, I will agree with their feelings but use secular language to do so--instead of nodding along with exclamations of "'god is great/mysterious/merciful/love/etc. and whatever fits the moment.' I find it to be equally as subversive to set an example of a secular person feeling wonder, awe, gratitude, relief, or joy without couching the experience in spiritual language as I do when I have the opportunity to pose a naturalistic hypothesis for a 'miracle.' If you do any of this with a humble, earnest tone, it is harder for them to get defensive and shut out the new ideas you're introducing to them. It also shows them that life can be just as rich and wonderful without resorting to spiritual explanations."
If he can successfully provoke them into taking a closer look at the grounds for their belief system, isn't he accomplishing more than if he came out? After that, his explanations would hold far less weight with his family, if he could get them to listen too him at all. Maybe his Trojan Horse approach could accomplish something.
You can remain in the closet and never come out. If you believe you have a secure grip on your own atheism and are comfortable in your ability to reason with and debate others, why wait? Sadly, some people are just timid and should probably never engage others.
I guess the Trojan Horse method has it's merits. I am just more direct. It must be remembered that the onus is always on the individual making the supernatural assertion. The ball is in their court and their racket has a huge hole in it, unbeknownst to them.
This post is what made me join Think Atheist- thanks for these words.
I feel very similar sometimes, and I've yet to come out to my friends.
I don't feel like "I've lost a lot by becoming an atheist", but it is sad to think of certain strong friendships being weakened or lost because of their closed-mindedness.
Welcome to TA, your Saintliness, glad you could join us! I think I met your brother, Cumulo --
Ah but Cumulo had to leave here under a cloud.
Bet that's why he never made saint.
There can be only one! (Duncan 'McCloud')
From the clan McCloud of course :-)
Dammit Reg, I was gonna say that!
RE: "it is sad to think of certain strong friendships being weakened or lost because of their closed-mindedness" - when you think about it, that really doesn't need to be. If you were such strong friends in the first place, surely you had other things in common besides religion, and you should still be able to do and discuss those. On the other hand, if you didn't - if religion was the only thing in common that you shared - it must have been a rather one-dimensional relationship in the first place, and hardly worthy of regret.
It's a bit of a mixed bag, and maybe you're right (that maybe those friendships weren't built on a better foundation.)
The group of friends I'm referring to are all youth ministers (I, myself, used to be one), have family in (and leading/preaching in) the church and are all deeeply religious. They may be nearly incapable of separating beliefs from association (I've watched them treat other associates with less respect and honesty after they ceased to believe as they do -still Chrsitian, but 'differently'-)
Thank you for your response, your simple words have given me some substantial food for thought.