Ask Richard: Help! I Gave My Soul to Jesus Even Though I Don


May 19, 2010

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Dear Richard,

Is it dangerous to join a church out of pure social interest?  

This weekend, I attended a very small conservative church with a friend of mine, where it is taught that men are servants to God and women are servants to men. The church is in a Bible Belt state, and is very small and not part of a larger denomination. It borders on being a cult, as most of the members are related in some way. 

When I went there this weekend, one thing led to another, and a friend was my witness as I "gave" my soul up to Jesus and the Lord. I felt very coerced into the whole thing, and thus it seems my interest in seeing what sort of culture exists in this small congregation got me in over my head. 

Where do I proceed from here? I know too many of the people at the church to back out without having them chastise me and try to "save" me again. Is it wrong to go to this church and lie to their faces just to gain knowledge of the inner-workings of this small, cult-like church? Is there any knowledge to be gained here, or am I just playing some sort of dangerous game with my mind? I don't wish to be brainwashed, but take it from me, two days have already been very detrimental to my atheism. 


Dear Brad, 

The way you describe being curious about the culture and inner-workings of this church–with a kind of intellectual detachment–makes you sound as though cultural anthropology is a hobby of yours. Well, there's nothing wrong with that. I know a guy named Hemant Mehta who had a similar curiosity, and he turned it into an excellent book. Your mistake was to investigate a church too close to your home with people whom you know. Now you're wondering how you can disengage yourself from their church with the least amount of disappointment or offense to them.  

But the question arises whether or not you actually want to disengage from the church. I take from your letter that you have difficulty in being assertive and are a little uncertain about your own beliefs. Maybe you simply have a hard time saying no to your friends, and so you felt pressured into making that ritual commitment. Some church services can be very emotionally compelling or manipulative, and some people can get swept up in it in ways that feel coerced or less than voluntary. 

Maybe you're just lonely. I can certainly understand that, but there are other ways to remedy that without the entanglements that you are describing.  

On the other hand, you also sound like you are not sure that you can keep your wits about you, and that you will somehow be seduced into really becoming a believer.

If in your own mind you are very clear, settled and confident about your atheistic views, then you're not in any risk of ending up believing something that you don't want to believe. But if you are ambiguous in your position, or if to some extent you want to believe what they believe, then by hanging around the church you will probably get what you want. That is, after all, what they do there: they practice on each other, convincing each other to believe.  

So the first thing to do is to make up your mind. If you want to get away from this group, then given that you have some difficulty asserting yourself, I recommend that your best course is to quietly back away. Disappear for a while. Take a vacation. Out of sight is out of mind. When you come back home, don't go to any more meetings and don't bring up the subject with anybody. If, and only if, a member who you know invites you to attend again, say, "Thanks, but I decided that I'm not interested," and then change the subject. Do not volunteer any further details or reasons. Your responses should be neutral, bland and uninteresting, providing nothing against which they can argue. One or two might persist in questioning you, but if you stand your ground, they'll eventually give up.  

Yes, you might have to pay some kind of social penalty. They might accept your decision, or they might chastise you or try to save you again, but I think it will be worth whatever awkward or uncomfortable moments you have to face in order to get out of this self-set trap of pretending. If they reject your friendship over this, then frankly such agenda-laden friends are not much of a loss. You can find better friends.  

The longer you wait the harder it will be. Better that they are disappointed now than really angered later if they find that you have been deceiving them for a long time in order to observe them as if they were rainforest aborigines.  

As for your ethical question, is it wrong to go to this church and lie just to gain knowledge of the inner-workings of this cult-like church? Yes, I think it is wrong for you to mislead them, appearing to agree with them just to satisfy your intellectual curiosity, or to have some company, if that is all it is. There's no need to confess that to them, though; just stop doing it.  

In the long term, Brad, begin to find ways to nurture more self-confidence in yourself so that you can have friendships without having to please people by going along with things you'd rather not do and making commitments you'd rather not make. You might benefit from taking a course on assertion so that you don't let "one thing lead to another," as happened in the church. Then you can be intellectually curious about what people do, but still be able to have boundaries and keep whatever limits of involvement you feel are appropriate for you. Eventually, you will be comfortable and self-assured and able to frankly tell people what you believe and don't believe. You will have attracted friends who accept you as you are, and no one will have to pretend in order to gain the approval of anyone else.  



Richard Wade identifies as both a humanist and an atheist. He has worked as an artist and as a marriage and family therapist with many years in the specialization of addiction. Now retired, he has counseled more than ten thousand patients. Questions to this advice column are welcome from any perspective or belief, not just that of humanism or atheism. Richard Wade's column can also be read on a regular basis at The Friendly Atheist blog.