Another in my series of people's responses to my coming out agnostic.
Many people say, "Nothing has changed." Not true. Never true. They may also say, "I'm still your friend and care about you." That I believe. ...For the most part.
What "friend" means, exactly, shifts and adjusts. There are a few who become rather distant and put on happy, shiny faces when we happen to meet, but they have stopped calling, texting, inviting, or radiating warmth when we hug. They've gone distant. Whether it's because they have to detach for my path to hell not to bother them or be painful, or they think less of me, or they are afraid of their own demons, or whatever, I don't know. But I've gone distant toward people in my past. Probably in my present, too. We all do it. It's sad, and it's sometimes necessary, sometimes wrong, but it's understandable.
For the most part, my friends are still my friends. But there's still a common complication. When we're together, just the two of us, it does feel as if nothing has changed, or at least very little, even if we don't relate on the religious level on which we used to. But the change becomes painfully clear in groups. Even in small get-togethers of friends and/or family, something as simple as a prayer over dinner is a brief reminder that I, who used to be a "worthy priesthood holder" who would offer heartfelt prayers, am now the lone heathen who no longer prays, at least not in the way I used to, to a literal deity I was certain would listen and answer. If asked to pray by someone who either doesn't know or has forgotten my change in beliefs, I cannot do so in good conscience, feeling like it would be a mockery for me to pretend, so I decline, hopefully politely, and try to ignore the awkward response or reassure them I'm not bothered.
In those notably rarer occasions when I'm still invited to a group get-together consisting primarily of "believers", I am constantly reminded of my own change. It's nothing they do. They don't mean to make me feel like an outsider. I just necessarily feel so. I no longer share their enthusiasm for a conference talk, despite often sharing their enthusiasm for the underlying principles of it. If I try to share my enthusiasm for the principles, I find myself dicing the talk into universal and LDS bits, setting the LDS bits aside to find our points of agreement, an effort which unfortunately only emphasizes my "lack" of faith (or, more accurately, my faith in things different from those in which it used to be placed). If I remain silent, I am the voiceless boy in the corner, too misfit to offer his thoughts.
But I haven't decided which is more painful: being welcomed with open arms into a room full of people with whom I used to identify and with whom I no longer share what I know is probably the single most important system of beliefs in their lives but now among whom I'm an outsider, or knowing that I am now welcome tentatively in many groups only as "a less active," a taxing presence they must tiptoe around, not someone they are truly at ease with as they are among the active or believers. I'm sometimes not invited to outings of the faithful because my existence is troublesome. It used to be for me. I loved that I could spend time with a large group of friends and feel totally at ease knowing they shared my beliefs and my values and standards of behavior. I didn't understand the meaning of it when friends whose beliefs or standards were different insisted they were fine respecting my beliefs and keeping my standards and being around me and my friends: I was uncomfortable with it, and I assumed they must be more comfortable with their own kind as well. I didn't get it. I know the other side now. I know they were sincere. I know they saw past that difference. I know I wanted to, in a way, but didn't. I somewhat sadly accept that some of my friends don't understand that. They don't see that my values and standards of behavior may match theirs more closely than many LDS people's would if those individuals were removed from the accountability and monitoring eyes and ears of the LDS community.
But not all changes are negative. Some friendships actually become closer. Some LDS or otherwise religious friends admit their own questions, doubts, or outright disbelief. We talk, and we seek positive solutions, outlooks, and principles. We identify values we do believe in, and we freely admit possibilities and cluelessness. Insecurity or defensiveness gives way to raw uncertainty, and we come away reassured that others are truly honest seekers of truth and not just clinging to theism, atheism, religion, or philosophy out of some emotional defense or need for certainty, fabricated or otherwise. We grow closer and know we've found, in each other, someone who will admit when they just "don't know" but is trying to do the best with what they do have and believe.
Sometimes, I come back together with friends I'd grown apart from years ago because I was so deeply convinced of the truthfulness of the gospel as taught in the church but unintentionally defensive of people who believed differently. I find they are really quality people who are committed to principles I really believe in but whom I'd overlooked because they engaged in behaviors I just couldn't support. Now, we find that we have now grown towards each other in some ways, and I see what great people they've become and what a shame it is that I let religious differences and behavioral standards blind me, even a little, to that. In my effort to form eternal friendships based on eternal truths, I ignored friendships based on eternal truths but disagreeing on where those truths came from or how to apply them to one's life.
Then there is a whole other class of friendships: people who, now that I'm maybe less judgmental or more familiar with more liberal (less fundamental) perspectives, reveal a (sometimes surprisingly large) aspect of themselves that they don't reveal to those who are more "conservative" in their outlook. I find out that people I thought were goody-goodies (as people have perceived me) do or believe things I never expected. Or they behave in ways I still don't understand even though I'm supposed to be a heathen, or they believe things I don't see room for in LDS doctrinal framework but which do make some sense if you scrap LDS doctrine, and I wonder if it's only a matter of time before they see the contradiction and give up on one or the other, or whether I'm just too limited in my perspective and have misunderstood or made too many assumptions about what I thought were eternal truths. Sometimes, this is an expanding, rewarding exchange, and I find people are more complex or interesting than I knew. Sometimes, it's just fun and silly. And sometimes, it's mildly insulting that they thought I'd be excited or supportive of such cynical outlooks or destructive behavior, or it's unsettling, like finding your sweet old grandpa's freaky porn stash and hoping not everyone has such secrets...
And of course, some friendships really are mostly the same. We go out to lunch, watch movies, chat online, play Wii, talk about life and philosophy, laugh together about life's foibles, cook together, whatever. Often, we don't talk much about church or doctrine, and when we do, I just talk objectively, showing understanding without affirming my own belief in some doctrine or another. I may temporarily don the hat I wore so often of spiritual advisor, but operating on backup data rather than current conviction, or I may play the devil's advocate to help them think something through, and they may arrive at their own conclusion, whether or not I agree, and we move on. But mostly, we tend to set aside matters of religion. We have plenty of other things to talk about, including many common goals, values, principles, people, and interests. There is more to our friendship than even overarching and deeply held religious or philosophical belief, so we shift gears and maintain bonds based on other aspects and facets of life. We may each hope the other one day sees things more our way, but if not, we both figure we're all either going to find out someday whether anyone was right, and who, or we're going to fade out of consciousness entirely anyway, so what's the use in bringing strife into our relationship over something we both believe or hope will eventually work itself out one way or another?
The changes and adjustments aren't easy, but forutnately, the negatives are generally balanced or outweighed by positives, and though it's requiring a non-negligible amount of emotional and mental energy to adjust to the changes in my relationships, I hope it's worth the effort to maintain the relationships I need in my life and develop the friendships which will help me move forward and continue striving to be a better me the best I know how.