Tag Archives: Theism

Who Should Speak for Pastors’ Kids?

How likely is it that preachers’ kids will lose their faith? Is it any different from the general population?

The Barna Group, a Christian polling organization, just published the results of its study of pastors’ children to see whether it was true that ‘those who’ve grown up closest to the church are the quickest to leave it….’

I think it’s important to point out here that all of these results came from telephone conversations with pastors, not their children.

From Why Do Pastors’ Kids Leave the Church? A New Poll Investigates…by Asking the Pastors.

Photo by Richard Melo da Silva.

Photo by Richard Melo da Silva.

The results of this poll aren’t as important as its methodology, but the above links do make for an interesting read if you have a spare 20 minutes.

Longterm readers know that I was a preacher’s kid. I spent all but the last six months of my childhood immersed in subculture that holds pastors and their families to a very different standard than is expected of the average Christian family. Explaining what it’s like to grow up in this environment is like emigrating to a new country as an adult and then attempting to explain your childhood to people who have no personal experience with the culture or history of your home country.

Now imagine someone who grew up elsewhere deciding that they know your life better than you do. When people ask why you emigrated, they start spouting off statistics about the increasing number of polar bear attacks or your chances of drowning in maple syrup.

Yes, sometimes they might actually stumble upon the truth. There are people out there who are sensitive to unspoken assumptions and cultural mores, but the fact still remains that they’re putting words into your mouth. Their experiences are not yours, and as important as it is for them to learn about other points of view being told what something is like is no substitute for actually living through it. Even preacher’s kids from the same family can have very different reactions to their childhoods. I know PKs who are Atheists and devout Christians, straight and gay, traumatized and deeply happy as adults.

Gather 20, 50, 100 of us in the same room and you’ll find 20, 50, 100 different stories. Invite our parents to join us and I have no doubt that in many cases their understandings of where we are now won’t be the same as ours. It doesn’t mean that anyone is lying, only that families are complicated, past experiences colour present expectations, and not everything in life in static.

Ideally there would be no spokespeople. Asking a handful of people to speak for an entire group usually leads to only certain stories being told. Everyone who doesn’t fit a narrow definition of what is acceptable is filtered out during the selection process, and that only leads to more misunderstandings.

But at the very least you should be directly interviewing the subjects of any study. No one who wants to be taken seriously would poll men on what women think, teachers to speak for firefighters, Christians to weigh in on Tibetan Buddhism, or straight people to explain what it’s like to be LGBT.

If anyone from the Barna Group ever reads this, I would be happy to participate in a new poll. I would pester…er, encourage all of the other PKs I know to hop in as well. If you want real data, we can help.


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Free Speech Isn’t Only for Ideas You Like

Someone (thanks, Mel!) sent me a link to this story about Daryl Banther and his 8-year-old son. The poor guy. He just wanted to hand out pamphlets and religion “surveys” to unsuspecting festival-goers in Georgia. But the cops chased him away….

He thinks he should be allowed to pedal God. In a way, I agree with him. But there’s an appropriate time and place for that.

– From Evangelizing.

It was difficult to condense this topic into a short quote. I highly recommend reading the original article and Deborah Mitchell’s response to it in order to understand the nuances of the story.

Raising Kids Without Religion is a fantastic blog, but I disagree with Deborah’s assertion that it is inappropriate to pass out tracts at a public event. If anything, public events are an incredibly appropriate place to discuss your beliefs so long they don’t fit into the short list of exemptions to free speech.

After all, free speech isn’t only for ideas we like. In order to work properly it must apply to people we vehemently disagree with as much as it does to our beliefs. No one is guaranteed the right to never hear ideas they find offensive, heretical, or just plain objectionable. Daryl has just as much right to pass out pamphlets and discuss his beliefs in public as the rest of us have to ignore him.

After living in Toronto for eight years I’ve become quite adept at quickly walking past the too-friendly smiles of preachers, performers, and salespeople while in the busier parts of town. 🙂

Assuming the accusations are true, should Daryl have been asking children he’d never met before for their home address and telephone numbers? It might be legal, but I have serious ethical issues with anyone attempting to extract such private information from minors. Any adult who tried that in my city would be perceived as incredibly creepy. No one approaches strange children here without getting permission from their parents or caretakers first, although I acknowledge that this sort of thing may be more socially acceptable in Daryl’s community.

If he broke the law he should be ticketed or arrested, of course, but I cannot support the officer’s decision to pressure him into going home that evening if he wasn’t doing anything illegal.

Ideas aren’t inherently dangerous. What matters is what we do with them and how we treat people who see the world through other lenses.

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A Non-Theist’s Advice for Churches

A continuation of Monday’s post

Bruce’s recommendations for churches were spot-on. He had too many ideas for me to list them all here but this is what I would have to add if the idea of non-theist consultants was to ever catch on:

  • Ditch homogenous small groups. Or at least make them 100% optional. It’s kind of weird to me as an outsider that people would ever be separated into groups based on age, gender, or marital/family status.
  • Do nice things for your neighbourhood without bringing up god. Confession: I’m always a little suspicious of church groups who come out into the community. Too often this ends with a tablespoon of proselytization just as you begin to settle into the event. When this doesn’t happen, when the festivities end without anyone pushing the god issue they earn a little bit of trust. Build up enough of it and I’ll happily talk to general-you about anything.
  • Don’t make us a pet project. By that I mean don’t treat the people who do not attend your church like something you need to fix. We can tell the difference between someone who wants to spend time with us because they enjoy our company and someone who wants to evangelize us. I can’t speak for every non-theist but I avoid anyone who gives off even a whiff of the latter.
  • Date pop culture but don’t marry it. It’s good to know about current recording artists, television shows, books and other media. Some of it is actually quite entertaining. Please don’t scrape up similarities between your religious beliefs and what I’m reading/watching/listening to, though. I’d much rather hear about that great new album or book you just discovered, secular or otherwise. There’s always room in my mind for new ideas if they’re well thought out and crisply written.
  • Read your worship songs. Seriously, sit down and read the lyrics. Do they match your church’s theology? Are they (more or less) grammatical? Have they at any time invited your deity to come and enter your sacred place? I once heard a worship song whose lyrics included that phrase. Even as a (at the time) nominal Christian who had grown up with the concept of the church being the bride of Christ I was unnerved by that imagery. Someone who doesn’t have any exposure to Christian theology may very well be even more weirded out than a former preacher’s kid.


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Do Churches Need Non-Theist Consultants?

Bruce Gerenscer recently said something fascinating:

Mainline churches need a make-over. They need to make themselves relevant again. Perhaps they need to hire an ex-Baptist atheist like me to tell them how their church is viewed from the outside. (yes, perception matters)

I’ve never considered this idea before and at first it seemed a little odd, like asking for marriage advice from someone who is permanently single or parenting advice from people without kids.  Certain experiences are difficult to grok if you’re not part of them. As a non-theist I only think about religious topics when they directly affect me or my loved ones.

The longer I think about it, though, the more I suspect Bruce may be onto something here.

Should non-theists tell theists what to believe? No. Or at least not so long as what they believe isn’t negatively affecting our lives (e.g. through legislation that discriminates against people based on religion or attempts to blur the line between church and state). And, to be honest, I don’t care about anyone’s theology until or unless it is used against people outside of that religion.

Can non-theists offer a fresh perspective on church culture? Absolutely. Once you become habituated to a routine  it’s difficult to step back and see how some things come across to people who aren’t accustomed to them. To give a mundane example, Drew and I used to live in an apartment building with a finicky front door. You had to insert your key at just the right angle and then jiggle it to get the door to open. People who didn’t know how this door worked could become pretty frustrated. Once you figured out the secret, though, it became second nature. When we moved to a new building I had to train myself to stop jiggling the key. It was no longer necessary.

Sometimes religious gatherings can be like that lock. Visitors don’t know, cannot know all of the quirks of a particular congregation. This isn’t always a bad thing. Discovering the quirks of a small group can be one of the most pleasurable aspects of getting to know new people. I find it really interesting to figure out who is the village peacemaker, jester, shit-stirrer or story-teller. But if there are too many things to figure out new members might give up before they figure out how or if they belong. This is where an outside consultant could come in handy.


I’ll be continuing this conversation on Thursday. In the meantime what do you think? Is Bruce’s idea a good one?

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Mailbag #5

Anonymous asks:

How do you approach someone who has a non-theistic worldview?

Without an agenda.

Look, we know when we’re being “courted” through friendship evangelism. It’s disheartening to be treated as a project, to be valued as a friend only if you come around to someone else’s way of thinking.

Does this mean you can’t talk about what you believe? Of course not. Some of the best conversations I’ve ever had about religion have been with people on the other side of the fence.

Just approach people you genuinely like and treat them the same way you’d treat anyone else.

Do you have a question for me? Submit it through the contact form or in the comment section of this post. 

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Wild Card Wednesday: Rising Atheism in America

The US is increasingly portrayed as a hotbed of religious fervour. Yet in the homeland of ostentatiously religious politicians such as Michele Bachmann and Rick Perry, agnostics and atheists are actually part of one of the fastest-growing demographics in the US: the godless. Far from being in thrall to its religious leaders, the US is in fact becoming a more secular country, some experts say. “It has never been better to be a free-thinker or an agnostic in America,” says Annie Laurie Gaylor, co-president of the FFRF.

The exact number of faithless is unclear. One study by the Pew Research Centre puts them at about 12% of the population, but another by the Institute for the Study of Secularism in Society and Culture at Trinity College in Hartford puts that figure at around 20%.

Click here for the rest of the article.

This is one of those things that is heavily influenced by where you live.

Exceptions exist, of course, but someone in a small, rural, community usually lives under a different set of cultural mores than someone in, say, Los Angeles.

U.S. readers, how homogenous is your community? What percentage of your friends and family members share your (ir)religious beliefs? Have you noticed a change in that percentage over the last decade or two?

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The Deconversion Guide: Illness and Death

Part four of the series. Click here for part three.

Today’s topic: chronic illness and death.

As I don’t have a chronic illness I’ve asked a few blogging friends for advice.  A little later on in this post I’ll talk about my experiences as a family member of someone with longterm health problems.

Chronic Illness

I asked Daphne Purpus, Bruce Gerencser and Trey Smith three questions. This is what they had to say:

Would you be willing to share your experiences with this [how Christians respond to your illness]?


I was having cataract surgery (2 different times with 2 eyes since they won’t do both at once) and the place my eye doctor wanted me to go to is first rate, but run by Seventh Day Adventists… As I am sitting in the chair and the surgery is about to proceed, the surgeon asks if I mind if he prays for this surgery.

Ok, now you have me over a barrel. Can I say no? If I do will that affect his abilities, consciously or not? I felt forced into saying it was ok, and in each case they put their hands on my head and went through a fairly lengthy audible prayer.


The last church I attended was a local church in Ney. My family and I attended this church for many months before we stopped in November in 2008.  I considered the pastor a friend and the church was very friendly towards me. (of course I was not a declared atheist at the time) From November 2008 til today I have not spoken to one person from the church besides the pastor and I have not talked to him since March of 2009. No care. No concern. If I wasn’t willing to attend their church there was no need to bother with me. (even though I had and continue to have great physical needs).


Surprisingly, I don’t run into the issue very often.  Most members of my family are agnostic or atheist, so we rarely get into religious discussions at all!

What do you say when Christians offer to pray for you or say that their god can heal you?


 One doesn’t need a personal deity to subscribe to the idea that sending positive energies out into the world will have a positive effect…That being said, if someone says something like I know my god will heal you, then I start to baulk. The whole idea of prayer healing is a philosophical quagmire and even in my orthodox Lutheran days, I had problems with that. Why does god heal one person but not another. Is one more deserving?


Generally, if a Christian offers to pray for me I thank them and say nothing. I know they mean well and little is gained by entering into a debate with them about God or the efficacy of prayer. If a Christian asks to pray for me right at the moment were are talking I ask them them not to. It is one thing if they want to pray for me privately but I find people praying for me in my preserve to be offensive.


From time to time, evangelists come knocking on my front door.  If it is in one of those periods in which I’m using my cane, I have been asked why and I tell them about my condition.  That’s when I get the “I’ll/We’ll pray from you” gambit.  My typical response is “If it makes YOU feel better, go for it.  It won’t make me any better, but at least you’ll feel better and isn’t that what praying for others is all about anyway?

What do you wish they would say or do instead?


I understand that many Christians feel a need to pray for the sick and I certainly don’t want them to stop doing so. That said, I would prefer that Christians try and help me rather than pray for me. The easiest words to say as a Christian is “I will pray for you.” It is much harder to enter into a person’s life and embrace them as a fellow human being…What I need is help when life is overwhelming or when I face difficult physical obstacles.


Maybe, “gosh, that’s too bad” or “Hope you get to feeling a tad bit better in the coming days.”  I mean, there really isn’t too much a person can say.  It is what it is.

Trey, Bruce, Daphne – thank you so much for participating!

My Family’s Story

My sister-in-law has a neurological disorder that has yet to be officially diagnosed along with a few other health problems. Last year she suddenly became extremely ill, was hospitalized for a few weeks and didn’t fully recover for months.

It was terrifying. What is even scarier is not knowing what the future holds – will her health continue to slowly deteriorate? Will her symptoms eventually stabilize? Will she continue to be able to attend school and work? We just don’t know.

These are things I rarely discuss for a few reasons: it feels weird and invasive to talk about someone else’s health problems in such detail, there are so many unknowns in her future, I only recently learned more information about her and it’s hard enough to have a loved one suffer as is. The last thing I need is for this to be used as a witnessing opportunity.

A final link before I end this very long post: Grief Beyond Belief is an online support group for non-theists who have recently lost a loved one. It’s a truly excellent resource! I haven’t lost any friends or family members since deconverting but I’ll often read what Grief Beyond Belief has to say in order to prepare for that inevitable day.

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The Deconversion Guide: Prayer

Part three of my series on life after faith. Click here for part two.

Today’s topic: Prayer.

How do you respond to prayer requests? What about praying before a meal? Is it polite to ask a well-meaning friend or family member not to pray for you?

Let’s talk about these one at a time.

Prayer Requests

Someone you care about is going through a hard time. At the end of their email or Facebook post they ask everyone to pray.

How should we respond to this? It seems dishonest to say, “yes! I’ll pray for you” if you don’t pray or believe in any gods (although getting out of that habit was really tough for me).

What is someone really asking for when they post a prayer request? Finding comfort in their religious beliefs is definitely a major part of it but I think there’s also a social aspect.

Most of the time friends and family don’t begin and end their side of the conversation with prayer. Advice or practical assistance – babysitting, bringing over a hot meal, helping with chores or errands that cannot be postponed- are usually offered as well.

Navigating the religious angle of it can be really awkward but anyone can offer to help in other ways.


This is probably one of the most common reasons that non-theists become a captive audience to prayer. It can also be something that is more difficult to opt out of discreetly if you are uncomfortable participating.

Usually I’m happy to sit quietly while others pray.  A notable exception to this are prayers like this:

Thank you, God, for this food. We love you so much. Please teach us how to serve you better for the rest of our lives. Amen.

because they assumes a relationship that at least one of us doesn’t actually have with the speaker’s god. Your mileage may vary but I’m not ethically comfortable being included in someone else’s relationship with their god.

Promises are also something I take extremely seriously. If I say I’ll be somewhere or do something I’m going to be or do it. The last time I broke a promise was last fall when a nasty bout of the flu left me too weak to do what I had agreed to do…and I still felt guilty for staying home that night. 🙂

So what are your options when you’re in a situation where the prayer before the meal becomes uncomfortable?

You could talk to the prayer leader about it. I wouldn’t recommend this in 99% of cases, though, especially if the meal is hosted by the person who will be praying. It’s far too easy for these things to be blown out of proportion.

In my experience people cannot be forced to understand how someone outside of their beliefs sees certain things. If it comes up in conversation I’ll share my thoughts but I haven’t seen much good come out of bringing it up personally.

Another options is to offer to host. Anyone who visits my house is welcome to pray silently or in a small group before the meal begins.

Also consider meeting at neutral locations like a restaurant or park. The more casual the event the less likely that public prayers of any kind will take place and almost everyone loves a picnic or barbecue!

Hard Times

I’ll cover this in depth in an upcoming post but one of the other most common reasons for a Christian to mention praying for you is when something bad happens. Someone dies, loses a job, is diagnosed with a terminal illness.

Some non-theists do not find this a comfort at all. I completely understand why it would bother someone. Maybe I’m a bad Agnostic ( 😉 )  but I would only find this personally offensive if it was followed up with any hint of pressure to join that person’s religion or talk to his or her spiritual advisor.

Saying “thanks” and then switching the topic is one of my favourite ways to respond to this sort of thing.


Basically it all comes down to the intentions of the person offering or asking for prayer.

Does he or she want to convert you?

Is bringing up prayer a passive agressive act for this individual?

Is he trying to offer comfort?

Is she expressing sincerely held religious views?

Is prayer simply a habit for this individual?

There are many Christians in my life who would never cross that line. They sincerely respect my beliefs and are given a great deal of leeway when it come to these things.

Sometimes there are those who choose less respectful approaches. As I’ve mentioned in this series before, relationship history matters. You are the expert in figuring out what is happening with your friends and family.

Non-theists, theists, and everyone in-between: what have been your experiences with this?







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Pick a Label, Any Label

Time: 1998-ish.

Place: My rural, northwest Ohio high school.

Characters: Yours truly and a persistant classmate I’ll pseudonym Chris.

Chris: So, you’re a Christian, right?

Lydia: Yes.

Chris: What kind are you?

Lydia: Just Christian. My church doesn’t belong to a denomination.

Chris: Oh. Are you Catholic?

Lydia: No.

Chris: Methodist?

Lydia: No.

Chris: Charismatic?

Lydia: No.

Chris: Lutheran?

Lydia: No.

Chris: Baptist?

Lydia: No.

Chris: Presbyterian?

Lydia: No.

Chris: Eastern Orthodox?

Lydia: No.

Five minutes later the conversation was still circling. We were beginning to veer into types of Christianity I’d never even heard of.  Finally I decided to act.

Chris: Anglican?

Lydia: Sure.

Chris: Oh, ok.

I no longer remember the real denomination that I agreed to in order to end the conversation. It may very well have been Anglican. All I can say is that it gave Chris an acceptable answer and for the rest of our high school career Chris never again asked about my beliefs.

If I could step into that moment again I would be honest with Chris. Our church was influenced by the Vineyard movement of the 90s and when I was much younger previous churches had been Charismatic. Either one would have been more accurate than the unfamiliar denomination.

Why lie? I didn’t want to be pigeonholed. The conversation caught me off-guard. I thought that Christian was descriptive enough.

My labels have changed over the years but the discomfort remains. Yes, one-size-fits-all is convenient and can make communication easier and sometimes thinking inside the box make it easier for other people to understand stuff they’ve never had to consider before.

In no way does this make the label-go-round any less odd, though.

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God and Explaining Suffering

Last month I listened to the podcast of a sermon series about the problem of pain called My God Why? in which head pastor of The Meeting House, Bruxy Cavey, attempts to answer the question:

Why would a loving God allow there to be so much suffering in the world?

Bruxy’s first sermon on this topic boiled down into one sentence:

We can’t know for sure on this side of eternity but take comfort in the knowledge that God suffers alongside us. The links at the beginning of this provide a great deal more detail and nuance to his argument, of course. If you only have time to listen to one podcast in this series I recommend the first one and if you happen to listen to the third instalment, The Origin of Evil, I highly recommend checking out Drew’s response to Bruxy’s theory on the origin of evil. I was actually planning to write a very similar blog post about that part of the series here but Drew nailed every point I had compiled in my head!

What I like about Bruxy’s sermon and the idea of a God who suffers alongside with us:

  • People who are suffering are not blamed for their misfortunes.
  • A suffering God seem more human and far less distant than the other versions of God I’ve been introduced to in the past.
  • Bruxy acknowledges that there will always be a new question behind the one that has just been answered.
  • Bruxy affirms the idea that we see things through a glass dimly on this side of eternity. I appreciate his honesty here.

These are my disagreements or issues with this answer:

  • The idea of a God who suffers with us doesn’t actually alleviate anyone’s suffering.
  • Suffering yourself and allowing someone else to suffer are two completely different actions.
  • If God suffers with us wouldn’t that give him or her even more of an incentive to intervene? I know that I’m far more apt to work to solve a problem if it’s physically or emotionally painful for me.
  • How could a deity who created the entire universe not be able to think of an alternative way to encourage people to worship and embrace him or her that doesn’t involve billions of lifetimes of often unrelenting suffering? Surely he or she could think of something!

To be fair, this is an incredibly difficult question and Bruxy’s answer is best one I’ve ever heard from a theistic point of view. It also avoid many of the often unbelievable offensive assumptions made by or trite phrases embedded in traditional Judeo-Christian responses to this question:

  • God has a plan!
  • Suffering is a divine pop quiz.
  • You’re suffering because of a past un-repented sin.
  • You’re suffering because your parents or grandparents have un-repented sin.
  • If your faith was stronger you and your loved ones wouldn’t have these problems.

Unfortunately something is still lacking in this explanation. Or at least it is for me.

Imagine  if a storyteller began to quietly share a new tale of adventure over a roaring fire late at night. Just as the hero or heroine gasped one last breath before his or her seemingly grisly, unavoidable death the storyteller says “and then somehow it all worked out in the end and everybody lived happily ever after. The end. Who wants another marshmallow?”

Bruxy’s explanation sounds a little like this to me. It begins in one place, veers off in a completely different direction and then ends abruptly. I want to find solace it but it has too many rough edges.

A blog post isn’t enough space to figure this all out, of course. Honestly, a lifetime isn’t even long enough. There are other explanations out there, though, which is the other half of what I’d like to discuss today.

Alternative Explanations

Sh*t happens. You can make all of the right decisions, take every known precaution and still end up being diagnosed with an incurable disease or die in an accident tomorrow. There are no guarantees in this life, no magic elixirs to protect your loved ones from harm. This also means that no one deserves everything that happens to them. Tragedies to triumphs, some things we earn, others are given to us, and others show up out of nowhere. The problem with this explanation is that, at least for me, this  doesn’t provide any hope that tomorrow will be any better.

God doesn’t exist. This isn’t actually something I believe but it does account to a certain degree for the randomness in which fates are doled out. If there’s no one working behind the scenes it makes more sense for selfish, wicked people to prosper as much if not more than those who are kind and giving.

God exists but isn’t involved. At times I do believe this one. One of the benefits of being Agnostic is that I don’t have to claim anything as the capital-T Truth. When I do lean toward the idea that God exists it makes far more sense for God to be uninvolved  in the affairs of his or her creation than it does for God to love us, have both the knowledge of intense suffering and the ability to end it and yet still do nothing to alleviate it. This (apparent?) lack of action is something that disturbs me to the marrow of my bones.

None of this is real. Another theory: we’re living in the matrix. Everything we think we’ve experienced has been a simulation, a computer program of sorts. I’ll admit that it is one of the wackier theories out there but there is a certain allure to it. If nothing else it’s an intriguing metaphor for how we interact with this thing called existence.

What do you think?


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