“Oh look at you! You look great!” Grace said as she gave Sophie one of her best hugs, Sophie noticed that her friend was still using the same lemony scent as always.
“Thanks, I’ve been working out again and it makes a difference, doesn’t it?” Sophie sat down across from her long lost friend and wondered if she’d have the nerve after all to ask the question she wanted to ask.
“Yes, for sure. It’s tough to get back in the habit if you fall off the wagon, way to go.” Grace said and sipped on her usual triple-shot-latte. They caught up with kids and work and husbands – or exes, as it was with Grace, and in a bit of a lull she asked Sophie how so-and-so from the church was. Last she heard, their mutual friend was diagnosed with a treatable form of breast cancer.
“I’m not exactly sure, to be honest. I’ve sort of not been to church for a few weeks now and I don’t have any more information about it than you do probably.” Sophie relaxed, an open door for her question!
Grace took a moment to process Sophie’s words. Not going to church? She wasn’t sure she heard right.
“Well, then, so much for that bit of news. But what’s up with skipping church?” Grace asked.
It took a few seconds and she plunged right in. “I don’t know how you did it Grace. How did you manage to leave? Are you glad you did?”
Grace was surprised by Sophie’s questions and thought for a moment before she answered. There was a tone of desperation in her friend’s voice as if she were fishing for something specific.
“Well, it wasn’t an easy thing to do, first off, and anybody else I’ve spoken with says the same thing. It’s a process, but, yes it’s worth it.” Grace said
“But I mean, did you miss everyone? How did you survive without your friends?” Sophie blurted out the questions.
“Um, yeah, I did miss people. I still miss some. Some, like you I’ve managed to be able to keep in touch with. It all depended on how people reacted to my change of heart. I knew I would lose some friends in the process, but I went on to make new friends too.” she answered, and then added, “What’s going on with you, what’s with the questions?”
Sophie fiddled with the lid to her coffee while she spoke, “I just don’t think I have the faith anymore. You know Bill has always been passive and he finally quit church over a year ago. I didn’t bother him over it, I figured he’d come back around at some point. I asked him about it a few times and he said he got tired of the politics. He said there was enough of it at the office, he didn’t need at church either. And, well, we both started reading other news sources, Bill wanted something with another perspective, and I was shocked at the differences. In some instances the stuff I was reading from the church was quite at odds with the real world. I started to just watch and listen and I came to see Bill’s point about the politics. People vying for places of position and keeping things secret. I read some of the books Bill was reading and I came to realize just how outdated religion really is, and well, science does a better job explaining the presence of things than religion does. But it seems difficult to make a final break, like I’m abandoning my friends and who will take their place?”
Grace thought about her friend’s questions for a long moment before she responded. She recalled being in a similar place when she declared her own atheism. It was scary and unsettling and god how she wished she had someone to speak with. She was glad she could be that someone for Sophie, in this moment.
“Well, like I said, you just have to figure that some people will write you off. It’s hurtful and you’ll be angry over it but you can’t resent them for it. Honestly, I think some of the people that react the strongest are the ones who would leave as well if they had the strength. It’s one of the toughest things to do, to leave such a tight knit social group. We all have a deep desire to belong somewhere and often times we think ‘the church’ is the only option. There is a bit of a grieving period, a kind of loss that goes with the process. But it doesn’t last forever. There are alternatives too, ya know. I’ve joined a couple of local community projects that provide the same sense of belonging, and I feel like I’m contributing more than I was sitting in church three hours a week. At least that’s been my experience. Does that answer your question?” Grace took a sip from her quickly disappearing latte and sat back, allowing her friend time to think about what she just said.
“It does.” Sophie began slowly, “I was afraid you’d say exactly what you said. That I might lose some friends forever. It makes sense what you said about belonging and come to think of it, I am already finding my own alternatives, I just didn’t know why or what it was about. I’ve started to form closer friends at work the past few weeks I’ve been out of church. You know, in church we spend all our energy focusing inward and excluding anyone who doesn’t believe exactly the same way. I am finding out as I get to know some of the girls I’ve excluded that they are genuinely nice and care about issues and one another. All in all, it seems that the world is a much less frightening place than the church makes it out to be.”
Grace chose not to respond to the last comment and she let her friend keep control of the conversation.
“I suppose I just have to make the leap and admit that religion and I are no longer compatible. It’s a big leap after a lifetime of thinking just one way. But then I see you and a couple of others who have made the same choice and they haven’t been struck down by lightening and they really do seem happier. I want that.” Sophie said.
“Then it seems you will have it, you are well on your way already.” Grace said.
“I think I just needed to hear some things out loud. You really helped to affirm what I was already thinking. And now I have to go pick up kids from a birthday party. Thanks for meeting me Grace, it was good to catch up and good to know my feelings are normal.” Sophie said.
“Anytime. We should get together again soon. I know I would’ve loved to have someone to talk to when I left religion.” Grace said.
“I would like that very much, I’ll send ya a text early next week.” Sophie said. The friends gave each other a couple of parting hugs and left to do their errands. Sophie had more peace about her decision than ever. It is a leap, but it just might be worth it.
*I wrote an article a couple of weeks ago about the need for us as atheists to understand the innate desire to belong and feel loved. I surmised that many who might leave religion do not simply for the sense of belonging that the church provides. This short fiction story is a twist on that idea. As a writer I wanted to explore what a conversation might be like between two friends: one who had already admitted to atheism and one who was considering the idea. I thought it would be helpful to have some sort of visualization about these kinds of conversations – they are important in the scheme of things and we must allow compassion and empathy to guide us.
“No man can reveal to you aught but that which already lies half asleep in the dawning of your own knowledge.” Kahlil Gibran