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Thoughts on Revealing Your Unbelief to Friends and Family

By Jutsas ~

I have read with great interest a number of "testimonies" from different people here about their journeys away from christianity. Some have been remarkably similar to mine, others quite different. But a somewhat common concern is how best to let family and friends know that you no longer believe as they do. This (quite obviously) can be a very difficult thing to do, so I would like to make a few suggestions. These suggestions are not for everyone. They are also not absolute. Everyone has a different situation, and every relative or friend you deal with will have different reactions.

First some points on whom these ideas do not apply.

If you come from an abusive christian background with emotionally or physically abusive parents, relatives or perhaps even friends, then I strongly suggest you get professional help on dealing with the situation. I am not a professional and these ideas will not be very helpful. (I know that some here will say that christianity is always abusive, and I won't argue the point, but I'm talking more about clinical abuse done by real people, not the personal psychological abuse of the religion itself. There was a great series here several years back about the christian god being abusive, and it was very very applicable to my background, but my parents, and none of my christian friends were ever abusive to me). There are other good articles on this site about dealing with abuse, but again, please find real professional help!

If you are in the "Angry" phase of your break away from christianity, I strongly suggest you refrain from discussing your situation with your friends and family. What I mean by this is what several others have suggested on this site - that leaving christianity can result in going through all the stages people go through with loss and grief. There are arguments about whether the proposed five or six stages of grief are real or not, and I'm not going to get into that here, but I do know from my own personal experience (I started leaving christianity about 20 years ago - it is IMHO a lifelong process - but that's another story) that there was a long period when I was very angry that I had been hoodwinked by christianity. In that time period I got into heated arguments with a number of people about christianity. The results were not good. If you can be patient and make it to "acceptance" of where you are stage, you will find that getting your friends and family to "accept" where you are now will be much easier. I'm sure I will get some strong disagreement on this point. But I'm primarily talking about people who want to maintain their ties to their families and certain friends, not burn bridges. If you don't care, then you don't need to be reading this article. But if you are in an angry phase, let me suggest you might feel quite different about it several years from now, and you may find that you have left scars on both sides due to anger.

So here are some ideas, not in any particular order:

1) Know that pain is going to occur. There is just no way around it.

This pain is going to be at many levels. When people are confronted with an idea they don't like, or that they think questions something they hold dear or believe strongly, there isn't just an "emotional" pain, there is real physical pain. Research has shown that when cognitive dissonance occurs, chemicals are released in the brain that cause pain, the same that are released in a dangerous situation where your brain is telling you "get the F out of here". The natural desire is to relieve that pain. Getting angry or placing blame or coming up with rationalizations, or even running away from the situation, can relieve that pain. As some have said, there is no way around the pain, there is only "through it". I'll have some thoughts on addressing this later on.

Another major source of pain, if not the major source, is that this change throws out of balance the social hierarchy that you and your parents and friends have spent years building up. No matter how much we might dislike it, humans, similar to other species like Chimpanzees, spend much of our time fitting in to a "rank" with our fiends, family and coworkers - i.e. building social hierarchies. Over time, we unconsciously figure out our "rank" with regards to other people. "That's my dad, that's my mom, these are my children, I'm the smartest of my friends, or I'm smarter than Bob but not as smart as Harry" , etc, etc. Christians are actually very strong at this - I'm this spiritual, Sally is really spiritual, but Harry is a bit too worldly. I know my bible really well, but not as well as Tom the pastor, but certainly better than Beverly. We are always checking each other out for relative strengths and weaknesses. It happens here on the ex-christian site, and you can easily see it with who can make the best snark remark or write the best article about those misguided, stupid, idiot christians - or the most thoughtful, thought provoking article, or the best horror story about our religious experience and joyous non-religious awakening. These self rankings and ranking of other people happens naturally and changes somewhat over time, but we all eventually reach a fairly "satisfied" comfortable point where we know how we fit in with other people we deal with regularly. We are very uncomfortable when we don't know where we stand. Hell, this article is not unaffected to my innate desire to "fit in" on this site somewhere.

Losing your religion in a family or group of friends where religion is very important, is like dropping an atomic bomb on this hierarchy. Not only do you no longer fit into your established social ranking, your family and friends no longer know where they fit with respect to you. There will be a _very_ strong conscious and unconscious desire to not only find a way to return you to your "position", but to return themselves to the spot where they were comfortable with respect to you. This isn't just being dominant, it works on the submissive side as well. People, perhaps a still religious child, who looked up to you as a spiritual leader, may actually be more "hurt" than those who considered themselves "above" you. Parents, who see them selves as having a god given responsibility for your well being, will suddenly see their position as a parent strongly challenged, not only as a family spiritual leader but also with respect to their own capabilities as a parent. If they in a position of religious responsibility, such as pastor, their whole sense of self worth, and how they will be seen by all their peers or "flock" will now be severely challenged. If their own family member falls away, how can they be qualified to lead?

Contrary to what some claim, that the anger some parents and friends have is because they have been brainwashed by their religion , is rather I believe more strongly correlated to the abrupt upset of social status. Note, however, that this isn't necessarily due to you suddenly being sent to the lowest end of status with your family or friends. It isn't your new status, but the throwing out of your old status and now unknown placement that causes the discomfort.

We all feel uncomfortable if we are suddenly thrown into a situation where we don't know anyone. In fact, we are so uncomfortable, that if some one we barely know - but at least do know - shows up we will naturally drift over to that person. We at least have some standing with them. I would suggest that announcing you no longer believe an important shared faith results in much more discomfort than being in a group of people you don't know.

Understanding that this discomfort will occur, and that it is actually quite natural, is important in recognizing what happens when you make your declaration. Perhaps it can help you to know that your mother or father or friend will go through this not simply because they are still religious nut cases, but because it is natural for all humans to be hurt and upset by finding their social position with respect to you totally thrown out of whack. A similar thing would happen if you told Republican friends you voted for Obama and are now a Democrat, or even worse if you told your far left socialist friends you voted for George Bush and think he's a great guy. Or if you were a Boston Red Sox fan, but suddenly showed up to a party at your buddies wearing a Yankees uniform and said you loved Derek Jeter. Indeed, many of my former religious right friends seem to be more offended if I say that I voted for Obama than if I say I don't believe in Jesus anymore.

So what can you do about this, if it's true? I would suggest trying first to decide generally where you want to fit with your family and friends before you talk to them. Do you still want your Mom to be your Mom, your Dad to be your Dad? Then determine ahead of time that you are going to do what it takes to remain their child. This means that they need to see, and you need to recognize, that your status as their child no longer has any dependence on you being a christian. You were their child, and are their child totally apart from that consideration. I suggest that with parents if you come in with both barrels blasting denigrating their beliefs, you risk destroying any chance of maintaining a parent/child relationship. I believe it would be helpful to maintain your respect for them AND for their faith. There is no miracle sudden cure for instantly fitting back in, but this will be a start, and I think for most people, if your parents do truly love you - and being a parent, for most of us that IS the case - you will find that after a while, things will be fine. Not the same, but fine. Again, let me reiterate, this does NOT apply to abusive relationships!!!

For friends, the approach can be relatively the same depending on the relationship. This however, can be a lot tougher, because you do not have your family relationship to fall back on. It is quite likely that most of your relationship, and your place in your group of friends, was mostly centered around your christian faith. As a result, you may have very little left to use to fit in. You can no longer use "jesus talk", or try to say the most spiritual sounding prayer, to have the most verses in your bible highlighted, to attend the most services and shout Amen the most times, or the be slain in the spirit and talk in tongues the most, or to share the most horrifying conversion story, or talk about those evil Democrats and how Obama is destroying our country, or say how evil those gays are, or rather say how loving and accepting we should be to gays and love the sin not the sinner, how we should be emphasizing the love and saving grace of christ rather than pushing a political agenda, etc. depending on your particular former brand of christianity. I have found that, even though I maintain a acquaintance level friendship with some former christians, I do not have the tools any longer to comfortably "find my place" in that hierarchy anymore. This is a two way street. When christians know you don't believe like them any more, then they consciously and subconsciously know or sense that all those same "tricks" for fitting in will no longer work with you. Not only have you lost your tool kit, you have caused them to lose theirs.

This leads me to my next point.

2) Recognize that a lot of the difficulty is with you, not with them.

You must read the section above to know what I mean by this. This is not an accusation - as it will appear if you just jumped here! What I mean primarily is the difficulty we have with facing where we now stand with former family and friends if we announce we no longer believe.

So above, I tried to establish that disclosing your De-conversion will cause pain on all sides, not only emotional, but actual physical pain due to neurological chemicals released by the cognitive dissonance that _will_ occur on the part of your family and friends, but also primarily because it suddenly and almost totally destroys long established hierarchies - where you fit in, what rank you have with your family and friends.

Here I just want to point out how this is just as devastating to you as it is to them. If you read articles on this site carefully, I believe that you can clearly see that - despite protestations about how much happier we are now that we don't have the oppressive reign of christianity hovering over us - and I am not at all denying that this is the case - that this disruption of our place in the world leaves many many people if not unhappy, then at the very least, uncomfortable with where they fit in life now.

As I pointed out at the end of the previous section, without a shared faith, you no longer have the tools most people use to fit in with their christian friends. You find that you no longer value the things that used to give your status before. Not only that, some of them are now plainly embarrassing. But it goes further than this. You may find that you also are very poorly equipped for fitting into groups _outside_ of christianity. In fact, if your former faith was very strong and you were very well established in your christian group, you WILL be poorly equipped for fitting into many groups outside of christianity. Usually you will suddenly find yourself at the bottom rung of knowing what are the right phrases to say, what the right things are to like/dislike, and won't have the right stories to tell from your life that help fit in with a new group.

But possibly more strong than that, are all the things you learned (or as some psychologists recently have suggested, were naturally inclined) not to like. For example, in my case, I have found that a large number of non-christians (ok, not all, but too many) spend much of their life partying and getting drunk. It's like there is nothing else worth doing. I hate hate hate drunkenness. I have zero interest in that life style. I have tried to fit into several non christian groups, only to find that this really is is how they want to spend a lot of their time, drunk or stoned. Maybe its just where I live. But the point is, not only was drunkenness anathema per christianity, I also developed a strong dislike of it which remains the case _outside_ of christianity. Also, as anyone who has read some of my few other comments on this site, I dislike blind hatred and attacking other people's religious persuasions with angry diatribes. Blame too much "be kind one to another" all my life if you want, but I refuse to join in with the hatred/mockery crowd. Well, I'm not above making a few mocking comments myself, but again, its not something I feel comfortable with. This takes away a strong "tool" for fitting in with a new group of people. (IMHO, Most of the hateful snarky political comments you read on virtually any political discussion online, are actually done to fit in better or raise status with your own crowd than to make a point to the opposition - which is why its painfully clear that neither side is listening to the other side.)

So, you don't have the tools to fit in with the old crowd, but you don't' have good tools for fitting in with any other crowd. If you totally lose your family and friends, what and who will be left? This is a very real, and very strong fear. Those who ignore it, or deny it, are in my opinion ignoring and denying reality.

So what can be done about this? For many of us, this is perhaps the most difficult thing with declaring we no longer believe in Jesus to our friends and family. We might think its fear of what they will think (and certainly that is there) but it can be just as much, or more, about not knowing where we will fit in the world apart from our former faith.

There may be a simple answer, but unfortunately it is not simple to implement. I would suggest that we it might actually help to do what Jesus said when people asked him what they needed to do be one of his followers (well one of the the many often contradictory things) - you must become as a little child. A little child is at or near the bottom of the rung in social status. The easy thing for a real child is they hardly care, where-as you will. But what I mean is you have to do the hard work at shirking off some (not all) of your former positive and negative tools for fitting in and develop new ones. You will find that some of your old tools still apply. Friendliness, kindness, intelligence, other things are well valued in many social groups (see values on Valarie Tarico's website) You are not as much a misfit as you might think. But whereas you had probably reached a level of fitting in to your christian group such that you didn't have to work very hard at it anymore, now you do have to work at it again.

Then there is another hard part - finding a group you actually do want to fit in with. I'll leave those suggestions for any commenters, because I can't claim I know anything about how to do that. I do have to say that this site, while helpful in knowing there are other people like you, is not the answer. You need a local answer.

In summary, the whole reason I brought all this up, is I think you would do well to have started fitting in with a new group of people before you start making your announcements to previous christian friends. Maybe you don't have to wait for very good christian friends, who you trust will remain friends anyway, and maybe not family - who will remain family (though of course they have to be people you can trust won't go telling everyone else - you may not have such friends). But your larger church groups can wait. I think it will be much easier and lead to a much lower chance of causing unneeded friction if you are first comfortable with who and where you are - and have a supporting group - before you make a broader "announcement".

Understanding that the desire to fit in is a very real and natural feeling, that it's painful to no longer know where you fit in, and that its painful for your former christian friends and family to not know where they stand with you - and worse not know what to even do - to no longer have the "tools" - to establish standing again, that all these things are part of the way we are as humans rather than caused only by stupid and biased beliefs, can help you be more understanding of your own position, and perhaps be a bit more forgiving of the other side. It can help you see that given time and some work (by both sides) you can re-establish your standing with your family and some of your previous friends. That standing will never be the same - in either direction, but it can be there.

3) Realize that arguing your point will not avail you much.

This should not be hard to get if you have at this point agreed with most of what I wrote above. When you make your announcement, you will immediately cause physical and emotional pain in the person you are talking to, and you will immediately destroy all status you have built up over a long time with that person. There is very little you can say - in fact probably nothing - in the form of logical argument that will be accepted by the other person. The closest picture I can give you is they will go immediately into Gandalf mode: "I am a servant of the Secret Fire, wielder of the flame of Anor. You cannot pass. The dark fire will not avail you, flame of Udűn. Go back to the Shadow! You cannot pass." Your logical arguments may make you feel better, but no matter how ingenious or reasonable your arguments are, it is highly unlikely you will be truly heard. They will not pass.

This is yet another reason to enter this situation in a friendly non-confrontational way, with respect and understanding. They truly know not what they do. I maintain that if you reverse the situation, and an atheist announces to his/her atheist friends and family that they are now a christian, a similar "closing of the mind" would occur. The atheists will be totally unwilling to listen to anything the new christian has to say. The is not because of dishonesty or a closed mind (or only because of that), its because of a truth that so many believers and unbelievers, leftists and conservatives, etc, just never seem to be able to accept. It is nearly impossible to have a reasoned logical conversation with a person with whom you have no real social standing. Everything you say runs right into the other person's natural and very real cognitive bias. And standing will and does go down almost immediately with just a fewo of the "wrong" words and phrases. You say you are a republican to a group of liberals, and virtually nothing else you have to say will be heard, and vice versa. Make a strong argument for a liberal or conservative position when they don't know what you are, you will be at least heard. If they actually think you are one of them, they will be much more inclined to even agree with you.

Thus, logical argumentation is the last thing you want to get into when you make such an announcement. Instead, make it clear you don't want to have any discussions about this at the time. Rather, focus on your relationship, and begin to make some steps to re-establish a standing with them - if you can. You have to know you don't control both sides, only your own.

Note that you can start the logical reasoning with your close family and friends before you make a full announcement. You can begin to express you doubts and questions beforehand. Many christians will actually be willing to discuss these with you - many of them may have the same doubts. This will help it be less of a shock when you do make your anouncement. Meggizzle has a good example of this in the following article:

4) Realize that if you have family that really does love you, you won't lose them. But you will probably lose most of your friends.

This is all explained in section 1 and 2 above. You have a built in real standing outside of religion with a loving family. You probably don't with a lot of your friends, with possibly a few exceptions.

5) Maybe instead, just Ignore all this and just jump right in!

Some will suggest you just have to jump in the water start swimming. The following is an example of one lady who did this. The results were not pretty. As a pastor, she was at the very top of her social hierarchy, but made her announcement to an atheist society rather than her church. Her church was left to hear it second hand - apparently by the atheist society putting her announcement online - I don't know if it was with her knowledge If not, I'll leave you to judge for yourself the integrity of that. But for me, uncaring and the pride of "Yay let the world see we have another one!!!" comes to mind. Needless to say, the reaction from her church was not good. You might say "See how hateful they are!!!". I beg to differ. They are just human. They have no supernatural source for being any different.

Do note that her husband - still a christian - still says he loves her and will stay with her. Family.

For an interesting free book that probably goes way overboard on status seeking in humans, but is still a fun read: