“Try being an atheist.”
That’s the strangest pastoral advice I’ve ever given. It wasn’t a joke or a trick either.
A friend (not a church member) came to me for help because they were struggling with suicidal ideation.
“What do you do if god hates you?” That was how they began our conversation. It was a genuine question; they genuinely believed god hated them.
“Why do you think god hates you?”
Their answer was a litany of tragic events that Lifetime television ought to copyright. All of which were believed to be the direct result of god’s hatred.
I didn’t know what to say.
The person wasn’t there for sympathy. They drove several hours to have a genuine theological conversation because the crux of their trouble was itself theological.
“Why do you think god did those things to you and not to me?” I asked.
I was stalling as I tried to figure out what to say, but I was also genuinely curious.
The response was illuminating.
They were gay. They were promiscuous as a youth. They didn’t treat their body like the temple the Bible says it is. They drank too much in college.
It was a laundry list of evangelical Christian “no-no’s.”
My friend grew up at a mean-spirited, evangelical church but now attended a progressive church. Even though they left the faith of their childhood, that faith hadn’t left them.
Their current pastor affirms LGBTQIA+ persons in the congregation. She is a terrific, warm pastor.
I was convinced that if she wasn’t able to change my friend’s mind about god over the course of a few years, then I certainly couldn’t in a couple of hours.
Eventually, I said something like, “I don’t really know how to help you, but I would love it if you would try a silly experiment with me. It probably won’t help, but I’m curious.”
“Sure,” they replied, with eyebrows raised.
“I want you to close your eyes and pretend that you’re waking up from sleep tomorrow morning. It’s a normal day except for one thing. There is no god. Now, get up and imagine going through your normal routine. What happens?”
There was a long pause and then a big smile.
“What do you see?” I prompted.
“I’m brushing my teeth and looking at myself in the mirror. Usually, I’m disgusted by what I see, but today I can see how far my body has carried me. My god, it’s incredible everything it’s done.”
I was flabbergasted. I’m not a counselor and do not consider myself very good at giving advice.
My silly ideas almost always turn out more awkward than helpful, but it sure seemed that we were on to something. We continued the experiment for another 5-10 minutes.
When we finished the exercise, they joked and laughed with me for the first time since entering my office.
We talked for a while longer about other things, but eventually I suggested that my friend take a break from Christianity and from theism altogether.
Immediately their eyes lit up, but just as quickly those same eyes narrowed. “But I do believe in god. How would that work?” they asked.
Each year, Peter Rollins does something he calls “Atheism for Lent.” I don’t know anything about it besides its name, but that’s what came to my mind.
It sounds a little crazy, but if my friend was already struggling with suicidal ideation, then it seemed like time to try something at least a little crazy.
I suggested a knockoff brand of Rollins’ challenge. “For the next week, do your best to pretend that there isn’t a god. I know you really do believe, but just pretend. Live like you would if god weren’t real.”
A little over a week later, they called and told me how amazing the experiment was.
“At first, it was just plain dumb,” they said, “I just couldn’t shake the fact that I am a believer, but pretending otherwise helped me be more kind to my body, show more compassion to my struggling friends, and love myself.”
I was giddy. Like I said, my experiments don’t usually work, but this was a holy moment.
Then, my friend pronounced the sentence I’ll never forget. “Pretending there was no god made me much more Christlike.”
My friend had a therapist and a primary care provider working with them as well, thank God.
I would never try to care for someone through suicidal ideation alone, but the experience sparked my curiosity about how the world might be different if a few people gave up religion for a little while?
With the Netflix release of the “Pray Away” documentary, we are reminded once again how toxic religion and bad theology are destroying lives.
How many people might benefit from laying aside their violent, white, male god in order to embrace a life for themselves that is more Christ-like?
I love the church and I’m devoting my life to serving her. I want the pews to be full of people excited to embrace the Love that I’ve experienced.
Yet, maybe the path toward divine Love is as creative for some as Love itself is. It almost certainly means leaving hateful and bigoted gods behind.
Senior pastor of NorthHaven Church in Norman, Oklahoma.