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Is it Possible for an Unbeliever to Have Christian Family and Friends?

problem of evil

Many of the readers of this blog are former Evangelical Christians. Some readers find themselves somewhere between faith and faithless, while others label themselves as spiritual, pagan, agnostic, or atheist. One thing is for certain, many of us are far, far away from the Evangelical churches we once called home.

As we move away from Evangelical Christianity, we leave behind family and friends who are still Christians. One of the most difficult things we face is how to deal with Christians family and friends now that we are no longer a part of the Christian faith. Is it possible to have Christian friends? Is it possible to maintain good, mutually satisfying relationships with Christian, particularly Evangelical, family members?

Many of us remember the exuberance we had when we first trusted Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior. New converts often have a spiritual high that lasts for a long time. New converts are much more likely to witness to non-Christians than people who have been Christians for a long time. So it is when a person leaves the Christian faith.  Often they are angry, filled with regret. Many times they have been spiritually abused by a pastor or a church. Sometimes, after careful study of the Bible, they come to the conclusion that they have been lied to, that the Bible is, at best a work of fiction, and at worst a book that has been used to manipulate, harm, and destroy. To some degree, the new non-Christian has had a born-again experience. I tell people that I have been born again into humanity. Often, people are excited about their newfound non-faith faith. And just like newly-minted Christians, they want to share their newfound unbelief with others.

Granted, there are some differences between the new Christian and the new non-Christian. The new Christian believes in Heaven and Hell. The new Christian believes there is one God, one book, and one salvation, and unless unbelievers embrace the new convert’s faith Hell awaits them. The new non-Christian has a broad worldview. It is a “live and let live” worldview. While the new non-Christian is excited about what they have come to believe, they don’t think people who believe differently will be eternally punished for believing the wrong things. There’s no atheist hell, or heaven, for that matter.

The Christian, young or old, is duty-bound to share their faith with others. Jesus told his disciples to go into all the world and preach the gospel to EVERYONE, and everyone includes those who used to be practicing Christians. The non-Christian is not under any compulsion to evangelize. The non-Christian is often quite content to live out their life without ever sharing what they believe.  The Christian often shares their faith whether asked or not,  but as long as Christians do not force their beliefs on the non-Christian they often are not likely to say a word.  Each to his/her own, the non-Christian says.

Unfortunately, Christians are often not content to live and let live. Believing they have a mandate from God, they push their religious beliefs into every sphere of life, public and private. Many Christians are theocrats. They believe America is a Christian nation and that the Bible should be the divine law-book for all — including atheists, agnostics, and other non-Christians.

Thanks to the U.S. Constitution, church and state are separate. Non-Christians usually demand that Christian beliefs play no part in government. While many Christians, in public, support the separation of church and state, in private they espouse a no king but Jesus worldview. While they dare not expose their theocratic intent, behind the scenes they work to dethrone the God of this world and establish the Kingdom of God on earth. As one who follows the Evangelical church scene closely, I find the abandonment of the separation of church and state by Evangelicals and the rise of dominion theology to be quite troubling and dangerous.

It is in the arena of church and state issues that non-Christians and Evangelicals butt heads. Non-Christians are determined to keep the Christian beliefs out of government, while many Christians think that there is not enough Christianity in government. The non-Christian desires a secular state where everyone is free to worship any god they wish, or worship no god at all. Many Christians believe a secular state is an abomination and an affront to God. So the battle lines are drawn. As much as non-Christians just want to live and let live, they are forced into a battle with Evangelical, Conservative Catholic, and Mormon Christians. They cannot idly sit by while Christians attempt to turn the United States into a Christian theocracy. And for this reason, it is very hard to maintain productive relationships with Christian family and friends once we leave the Christian faith.

I am pro-choice.  I support gay rights. I oppose the teaching of creationism in schools. I oppose teacher-led prayer in public schools, and I oppose the recitation of the pledge of allegiance. I oppose Presidents and government officials being sworn in with their hands on the Bible. I am a democratic socialist and I oppose consumer-driven capitalism. I support stripping churches and pastors of their tax exemptions. I oppose the posting of the Ten Commandments in schools or government buildings, and I oppose any and all attempts to make the Bible the law of the land.

I am a liberal and a progressive. I support the ACLU, Americans United for Separation of Church and State, and the Freedom From Religion Foundation. I am so far to the left that I often meet the ghost of Jerry Falwell coming around the corner. Yet, I support religious freedom. I want every person to be free to worship or not worship according to their conscience.

As you can see, my life is an affront to Evangelicals. No matter how they look at me, my life is in direct contradiction and opposition to what they believe and practice. This is why it is very hard for a non-Christian such as myself to have meaningful relationships with Evangelical family and friends.

Several years ago, a friend of mine from many years ago found my blog. I met this man in the 1990s when he became a member of an Evangelical Christian Discussion mailing list, CHARIS, that I sponsored and moderated. I  had not heard from him in a long time. He left a comment for me. He didn’t try and be nice. He didn’t try to find out how I was. There was no attempt to catch up. Nope, he just left me two questions:

  • Is Jesus Christ the Son of God?
  • Is there any other way to God?

And so it goes . . .

Personally, I have given up any hope of trying to maintain relationships with Evangelical Christian friends and family. Those who read this blog see the emails/comments that are sent to me by Christian family and friends of mine. After fourteen years of emails and comments from arrogant, self-righteous, closed-minded Evangelicals, I am flat worn out by their words.

It seems that many of my Christian family and friends can’t or won’t leave me alone. They think they can somehow, someway, win me back to Jesus. They think if they argue with me long enough I will see the “light.” They seem to think that after twenty-five years in the ministry, I am still lacking some sort of knowledge about the Christian faith, and that if they share that with me, I will come running back to Jesus.

A decade ago, I  had one friend try to bully and badger me back to Jesus. Those who read my blog at the time likely remember what I call the Iggy Meltdown. This so-called friend bullied and badgered me until I finally had an epic emotional meltdown. I proceeded to launch an f-word laced tirade that left the air quite blue. Readers might remember that Iggy was the man who repeatedly told me that he knew me better than I knew myself. It never dawns on some Christians that their abusive behavior is anything BUT Christ-like. They try to win me back to Jesus using methods that Jesus would not approve of. And even if Jesus did approve of these methods, most thoughtful, decent people don’t. Badgering and bullying someone is never appropriate and it typically angers people and drives them away.

I am very pessimistic about being able to maintain relationships with Christian family and friends, especially those who are Evangelical or part of the Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) church movement. Over the past thirteen years, I have lost every Christian friend and ministerial colleague save two. I didn’t leave them, but they sure left me.

From time to time, former parishioners will contact me, wondering what Polly and I are up to. When they find out we are no longer Christians and I am an outspoken public atheist with a blog dedicated to exposing and critiquing Evangelicalism, they often are so traumatized by this that they unfriend us on Facebook or never talk to us again. One former church member told me that she couldn’t be friends with me because she found my story too disconcerting. This is a common response to hearing of my unbelief.

Years ago, I scanned a number of old photographs from several of the churches I pastored. I put them up on Facebook and tried to let those who were in the photos know that I had posted them. Only one person bothered to respond to me. I suspect some of them didn’t even view the photos. These were people I often had a very close relationship with. With some of them, I had relationships that went beyond the professional pastor/parishioner relationship. Why didn’t they respond? While I can’t say for certain, it is well-known that the Evangelical pastor named Bruce Gerencser is now an atheist, an enemy of God, and I suspect many of them have done a web search on my name and found this site or the other sites for which I have written guest posts. I can only imagine their shock when they find out I am an atheist.

Having said all of this, it is theoretically p-o-s-s-i-b-l-e to have meaningful relationships with Christian family and friends. The only way such relationships work is if there is mutual respect and there are no attempts to evangelize.  Honest, open discussion is one thing.  I am quite open about my unbelief. I enjoy talking about the Bible, God, Jesus, theology, atheism, agnosticism, and politics.  But, when discussions turn from friendly banter to attempts to convert me or reclaim me for Jesus, I quickly lose any interest in talking to such people. Time to get the check and go home.

I am quite willing to accept Christians where they are and as they are. Rarely can Evangelical Christians do the same. As I have said before, I want friends who are willing to let me go to Hell in peace. I want relationships based on honesty, openness, and mutual respect. If I can’t have that then I really don’t want to be someone’s friend. While family relationships are a bit more dicey, okay A LOT more dicey, I am at a place in life where I am quite willing to distance myself from family who can’t go five minutes without putting in a good word on for Jesus or trying to win me back to Jesus.

Life is too short, and since this is the only life I will ever have, I want to spend it doing things that matter and doing things that I enjoy. Arguing with Christians is not on my list of things I enjoy. I realize, at times, my blog provokes and angers Christians, and I know my words can be sharp and to the point. That’s the how I write, It’s who I am. That said, I am not looking for an argument. This blog is my attempt at sharing with others my journey.  Those who find my blog most helpful are those who are on a similar path.

To my Christian family and friends, I say this:

If you want to be my friend, if you want me to be a part of the family, then you are going to have to take me as I am.  Just as I am, without one plea from you. And If you can’t do that? It’s been good knowing you.

Bruce Gerencser, 66, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 45 years. He and his wife have six grown children and thirteen grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist.

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    That comic strip (especially the 2nd (A) part about God’s power) is what got me thinking a lot. I’ve wondered, if God has all the power to created the vast, impossibly large universe including its stars, planets, and everything in it, but why did he desperately needed men to write a teeny thing called the bible? Couldn’t he have written the Bible without using men (and to preserve it throughout the years)?

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    I admire that you expect and focus on basic human respect. This is one of the first and best indications of human character and I do not find it enduring among evangelicals. Their dear-heart love all over me soon collapses when I say, “No, no thank-you…” And one of the most insidious aspects of a verse like Jada references, Matt. 10-24, is how there is no insight offered by the excerpt. The student is not above the teacher? I do not see a lot of depth in the understanding of that statement. Is it about good military acceptance of rank? Or is it about being together in openness and curiosity? When I learned from my children that they wanted to learn in their own ways, I was intent on listening and allowing and not punishing them for being themselves. In our patriarchal history among evangelicals who are fundamentalists (even if they think they are not), the emphasis is to do with obedient jumping to attention, a sarge pushing a private in the direction of heaven’s gate. I would like to suggest that these sarge’s should read a different verse, one that says, your student is fully alive and free to access knowledge as they need it. Stay out of her way and look for direction from her. The student will teach you what you need to be able to help them on their way.
    The Bible, when read by evangelicals, is so full of harm and stink it utterly fails in bringing us to our humanity. It supports rank and makes us slavers and slaves.

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    “I tell people that I have been born again into humanity.”

    That is a very good way to put it. My wife is still a fundie (though she will deny it) and I was deconverted about a year ago. I still love my wife but it is VERY difficult sometimes for us to be on the same page. She thinks that I deconverted because of my own sin (don’t they all, Bruce?), but I was always a bit of a skeptic about the literal claims of the Bible. When I was “saved” I attended a liberal church in a liberal city. She comes from a First Baptist background, so you get the sense of how our beliefs differed even before I deconverted. It is possible to maintain a friendship with a Christian as a non-Christian. I often have to bite my tongue at some of the things she says. We talk about it sometimes but I think at least having believed at one time what she does now helps. It is interesting the biggest thing that keeps her believing is her testimony. That very biased emotional experience people go through really gets them hooked. I mean, who wouldn’t want to have eternal life or worry about having to do anything in the world to better the human race? Anyway, she got over the part she thinks I was never saved to begin with and still thinks I’m only backslidden. But, we manage to get through it somehow.

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    Bruce, I could always tell you took the attacks of fundies seriously and it caused you considerable grief (I didn’t realize THAT was the reason you stopped blogging). I always thought that you should wear it as a badge of honor, if you’re on their radar it means you’re getting to them. With friends and family, though I can see how that would be very difficult.
    As for the tenacious evangelists a good analogy reminds me of flirting. If it isn’t making everyone happy then it is harrassment.

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    I don’t go around letting people know I’m not a Christian. Since I’m chronically ill I don’t have as many opportunities to see new people. But when I did tell a good friend I was no longer a Christian, she changed towards me immediately and ghosted me not long after. Sad but true.

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      I’m really sorry to hear that BJW. In my old zealous days, I made a point to admit only Christians into my closest circle of friends. How many potential friendships I’ve lost due to that decision, I may never know. Very sad, as you said.

      Unfortunately, now that I’m no longer an Evangelical, it’s likely that I will lose all of those friendships. On top of the relationship with my parents. I’m often scared of confrontation (i.e. a coward) and all these relationships will probably die of neglect. The grief is very real. It helps to know that I’m not the only one facing this.

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        Michael Mock

        That whole loss of social connections is one of the great fears/tragedies of deconverting for a lot of people. It’s one of the things that I really wish more people understood about the process.

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    Great post. It’s challenging to maintain a relationship with people who are indoctrinated to believe that those who don’t profess to be part of their tribe are literally demonically influenced. I am barely hanging on to my relationship with my brother. He does try to reach out with noncontroversial topics, and I do the same. As long as we stay away from topics of religion, politics, afterlife, vaccines, covid, economic policy, etc. I may have crossed a line the other day when he sent me a video of his sons’ music recital. The teacher referred to one piece my nephew played as a Johnny Cash song. In fact, it was a Nine Inch Nails song that Johnny Cash covered. Anyway…..

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    Brian Vanderlip

    A fine, clear statement of the situation that faces those of us who have escaped the evangelical cage. What irks me still is that the ‘churched’ often use words that have been hijacked by Christianity and are triggereing to hear. How blessed you are! Well, yes I am blessed but not by some Almighty Power in the heavens but by life and humanity, by choices and circumstances sometimes far beyond me but nothing to do with magic powers! I have claimed back as much language as I can and junked what words I cannot use without sending the wrong message. For instance, I would never use the word ‘prayer’ because Christians are not able to separate the idea/experience from God even though it is clearly possible to me that God is an invention of bipeds. People pray to themselves or to a collective human experience of self-alone but try and explain that one to an evangelical! Anyway, many thanks for putting this out there, Bruce. Bless you, sir.

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    Barbara L. Jackson

    This sort of problem also occurs with relatives who are conservative politically. They say they have a 2nd amendment right to own machine guns. They say that climate change is not happening, or if it is it is just part of a natural climate phenomenon however we now have higher carbon in the atmosphere than in about 100,000 years.. I try not to talk to relatives and friends who go down this track. But it is difficult staying shut up.

    This doesn’t just happen with religious differences, it happens with political differences and economic theory differences, with pro and anti covid-19 vaccine people.

    I am 61 years old which is viewed as very old by for information technology. I have other disabilities which would make it impossible to go back to work, luckily I am retired. However I miss having the ability to contribute to technology.

    The best decision I ever made was to have no children. They would inherit this mess and I cannot fix it.

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    Michael Mock

    I will say that my parents, when confronted with my disbelief, did an excellent job of biting their tongues and sucking it up. (Which, I feel like I owe them an apology because that’s perfectly horrible phrasing but I can’t think of a properly respectful/grateful way to word that sentiment. They respected my freedom of choice? They acknowledged that it was my decision and that I had reasons for making it even if they didn’t understand those reasons? They treated me like an individual with the right to draw my own conclusions? Yes, all of those.)

    Which isn’t to say that they weren’t bothered, or that they weren’t even more bothered when I stopped bringing the boys to church. (I had said that the boys would attend church, with them or with my Mother-in-Law, until they asked to stop. The boys got to make the choice.) My mother was the one who was more visibly nervous about it — Catholic background — but I don’t know that she was actually any more disturbed than my father. But they never tried to force the issue, though they did let me know that they thought it would be better if the boys were involved in church, and I let them know that it wasn’t their decision to make… and also that I thought they were underestimating the understanding and mercy of the Almighty if He was prepared to damn me for a reasoned and perfectly understandable conclusion.

    My mother passed away a couple of years ago, and my father (and his new wife) and I are still quite close. But my father… how to say this? …models actual Christ-like behaviour better than almost any other Christian that I know. If anything, he’s too nice. And his new wife is a Unitarian; she has the evangelistic instincts of a paving stone, which is to say none at all. She’ll evangelize about taking concrete actions to help real people in measurable ways, but the vital importance of reciting the Sinner’s Prayer and Accepting Jesus Into Your Heart? Not a fucking word.

    So, I mean, it is possible for unbelievers to have Christian friends and family, but it depends a lot on the… flavor? …of both the atheism and the Christians involved.

    Also, for your amusement, a recent family discussion:
    Firstborn: “So… Is D&D our religion?”
    Me: “Close enough, son. Close enough.”

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