Healthy boundaries are the enemy of many different Christian ministries where I live. They represent the ability to say no. No, I won’t go to your church. No, I won’t read your pamphlet. No, I won’t let you pray over me.
There’s a reason why many ministries target people in crisis or at a young age. These are situations in a person’s life where they are unable to control the space around them. They are vulnerable to initial offerings and promises that have no basis in reality. All of this serves the purpose of making a person feel insecure in their own skin.
Over time, ministries will seek to actively destroy any boundaries a person might set up for themselves. Church activities will dominate a person’s time. Sunday sermons will guilt people into thinking about Jesus the rest of the week. Public displays of faith will remind people where they are, and the price of not being part of the crowd. The message: you are only safe if you are one of us.
How is a person to resist?
One of the reasons why I don’t tell everyone I know that I’m an atheist is because it’s tiring to have to defend one’s identity all the time. Refusing to talk about faith issues with people of faith is a way to shut down any attempted conversions before they begin. I can save time out of the day otherwise spent having to remind others why I don’t believe in invisible deities.
Not everyone has this luxury. Sometimes one can’t help but encounter someone who really wants to talk about the alleged good news. What happens then?
In my own experience, I go through several steps in order to keep myself rational. The first is to acknowledge that I am responsible for my own actions and responses. No one can take that responsibility from me, no matter how hard a person will try.
The next step is to become aware of my surroundings. Do I have a physical escape? Can I walk away? How many people are trying to talk to me? Are there onlookers? These things help, because it means I might just be able to make an excuse and leave rather than deal with whatever the person is saying.
The third step is to ask myself what the person really wants to say to me. Maybe a person feels guilty for not telling everyone about Jesus. People sometimes preach to hear themselves rather than talk to others. And sometimes people have an angry moment because they’re struggling with their own hidden doubts.
My final step is to act based on all of this information. Defuse anger. Use social cues to halt the conversation. Tell someone that they’re a good person, in spite of whatever beliefs the person has. Defending my own boundaries does not require confrontation or a dramatic exchange.
It’s hard to respect your boundaries after they’ve been eroded.
Rebuilding those boundaries is a worthwhile endeavor when a person is recovering from religion. It is an act of defiance, self-worth, and personal health all rolled into a single process. It won’t feel like it all the time, but that doesn’t negate its usefulness.
For the recently deconverted, I get that this is a big thing to wrap one’s mind around. I know I felt a little discombobulated after I admitted to myself that I didn’t believe in magical deities. The faster a person gets to work on their boundaries, the quicker this source of discomfort passes. Personally, I’ve only come across the subject of healthy boundaries by accident. It took discussion in therapy for me to apply it to my recovery from Christianity.
The ultimate goal here is to reclaim a sense of security that has been withdrawn and withheld by religious practice and abuse. With more people who do not feel threatened by vague threats of the pious, there is less of an ability to withdraw that security from new converts. In short, helping yourself also helps the people close to you who might otherwise be a new butt in the pew.