A few days ago I had a call from my brother. When I told him that my studies in seminary were going well, he was moved to tell me he had lost his faith and had been an apostate for years.
This was devastating to hear. Even after admitting his apostasy he still tried to praise me for becoming a pastor. His inconsistency is hurtful and confusing. Most of me wants to not call him my brother any longer, as in many ways he simply is not anymore. But a part of me is honestly intrigued by this, and I try to understand how apostates get to the place they are.
He says being a "hardcore atheist" and a "skeptic" is fundamental to who he now is -- it sounded like someone coming out of the closet. I can imagine original sin can do that to a person. But still.
I know I do not have all the reasons on the planet to back things up on my end as a faithful Christian. How would you respond to someone like my brother, who says things like ...
I’ll try to answer your concluding question, but let me respond to a few other things too.
"Even after admitting his apostasy he still tried to praise me for becoming a pastor. His inconsistency is hurtful and confusing." Perhaps your brother is less inconsistent than you think. Even though he thinks your faith a delusion, he admires you for giving your life to what you think is true. Perhaps something deep down even whispers to him that it is true after all. Even if he is inconsistent, accept his compliment as a compliment, rather than viewing it as an insult. It is not you he is rejecting.
"Most of me wants to not call him my brother any longer, as in many ways he simply is not anymore." This statement comes from your hurt, not from the reality of the situation. Though he is no longer your brother in Christ, he is still your natural brother, and in Christ, you should love him no less. He has not cast you off; why should you cast him off?
Besides, no matter what he says now, for all you know he may some day return to the faith. Your love for him may be what he needs in order to do so. Stay in relationship with him. Pray for him without ceasing.
"I try to understand how apostates get to the place they are." They get there by a variety of routes. How did he get there? You could ask him! Why don’t you?
"How would you respond to someone like my brother, who says things like..." Whatever he says, the most important thing to understand is the difference between honest questions and smokescreens. This requires discernment, and God’s help.
Sometimes people ask questions or raise objections because they want answers or solutions. When that happens, the proper response is to try to provide them.
But sometimes people ask questions or raise objections because they want to deflect honest conversation into rabbit trails, or avoid it altogether. When that happens, the proper response is to dissipate the smokescreen. For example, you might ask your brother whether he would change his mind if you were able to answer all of his objections. Suppose he were to answer “No.” Then you might point out that since his objections to faith are not his real reason for rejecting it, the two of you don’t need to waste time on them – and you could ask him what he thinks his real reason is.
"... things like 'I just believe in Reason. I believe in things based on evidence and I'm entirely convinced atheism is the truth. You have your faith and I believe in evidence. Any conversations we have are going to end right there."' That is a false way to frame the issue. Faith and reason are not adversaries, but partners, like the two wings of a bird. Your brother is choosing reason without faith, which cannot even explain why reason is reasonable. You, I hope, are choosing reason together with faith.
I say “I hope” because I don’t know your family background. It may be that the faith which your brother is rejecting is a mistaken, fideistic faith which does view faith and reason as adversaries. Fideism, however, is not Christian doctrine, but a Christian distortion or heresy.
"... like 'I love talking about religions. But they are all wrong -- I am way past conversion. Don't try to talk me into anything. I'm just way past that stuff.'" If your brother doesn’t want to hear arguments for the faith, then don’t give him any. What good would it do to browbeat him? Don’t indulge him in “talking about religions”; he has already made it clear that this is merely an amusing game for him. Do try to understand why he really rejected the faith – but remember that the reason he gives himself, or that he gives you, may not be the real one. He may not know the real one.
Christians have crises of faith; atheists have crises of faithlessness. I once met an atheist who boasted when he was sober of ruining the faith of his students, but who told me after a few glasses of wine how religious he was. So in the meantime, pray to be ready for that moment of crisis when your brother does want to talk about God. And pray that when that happens, he will tell you.
"... like 'Of course it doesn't matter that I was baptized. That was entirely insignificant to me.'" Baptism is objectively significant because something really happens. When your brother says it is insignificant “to him,” what he means is that he subjectively rejects that significance. And he does reject it. You don’t need to argue with him about what you both know to be true.
... like 'Of course atheism is true, and you know it ....'” You might ask, “Suppose I said ‘Atheism is false, and you know it. Would you find that convincing?” If he says “That’s different,” simply ask him to explain the difference. Let him give the answers. It sounds as though he may have been making you give them.
".... like 'I just have one less god than you.'" In a way, this statement is encouraging, because by making it, your brother is conceding that he has a god. He is confessing that there is something to which he bows down, something for which he is prepared to give up everything else. Of course it is a catastrophe that the god that he worships is a false one, but for an atheist to say “I don’t worship your God” is much more honest than to say “I don’t have any gods.” Never despise honesty.
Do your brother the courtesy of taking him at his word: Ask him what his gods are. He may be surprised by the question. He may never have asked it of himself. Not many people have enough self-knowledge to know who or what their gods are. For example, someone may glibly say “My god is social justice,” though his god is really the social approval he gets for saying so.
"I am stuck with the fallout our family will face when he reveals his apostasy publicly. I need to protect myself and my family and prepare them for the spiritual challenge that will come." I am not sure how to reply, because I don’t know what you mean by protecting your family from the fallout and the spiritual challenge.
By the fallout, you may mean the anxiety your family will suffer for your brother’s soul, the pain it will suffers because it thinks he has betrayed it, or the scandal it will suffer when friends of the family find out. All very different things.
By the spiritual challenge, you may mean the challenge of loving a brother who no longer shares with you the foundation of all love, or the possibility that some members of your family will themselves begin to doubt. Or that you will.
Forgive me: Because I am a teacher, I tend to take everything as a question, even if it isn’t one. You may only have been expressing your sadness.
I will pray for you, your brother, and your family. If you think of it, pray for me too.
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