Expats & the UnChurched

This post is inspired by cartoons and comments on David’s Hayward’s blog “NakedPastor“. David is an ex-pastor and an unchurched ‘Christian’ who uses his art to illustrate how he wrestles with being an expat [1].

Religion & languages hauntingly share many properties such that, understanding the sociological, philosophical and evolutionary properties of one, helps to immediately and deeply understand principles in the other. Many of this site’s posts revolve around this theme and I hope to one day integrate my thoughts on this issue.  Perhaps due to my rich, deep, personal familiarity with religion and language I am observing the deep insights of  “consilience” — E.O.Wilson’s notion that all knowledge must be united at a deep level [2]. Or, more cynically, maybe this is merely the cognitive illusion of a mind that tries to vainly connect everything it touches. Either way, below is one more piece of speculation on the possible intimate connection between religion and language.

Some people intentionally leave their mother country because their newly adopted country offers something better for them. Yet amongst these expats, some have a great amount of difficulty learning to adapt to their new foreign home — they don’t learn the language, the gestures nor the customs. They tend to stay isolated or largely relate only to their own ethnic communities.

On the other hand, a smaller proportion of expats drench themselves in their new culture: learning the foreign language well, adopting many customs to some degree and having native friends with whom they interact using almost exclusively the local language, customs and values.

Religious believers may demonstrate a similar pattern when they leave their churches, synagogues, mosques or temples for complex, painful reasons.  These folks are leaving behind something they once considered highly undesirable.  After leaving, some of these religious expats will fully enter the world of nonbelievers but some, may still be more attached to what they left than they realize and stay while staying isolated from their former community of believers also don’t feel comfortable mixing with nonbelievers– they end up living in a self-created purgatory.  Like cultural expats misfits, they are critical of both cultures. They are often hoping to one day find a perfect congregation or denomination where they will again fit in, or they just give up and awkwardly exist in their new no-man zone.

Both the language example and this religious example contain two types of people — those who immerse themselves and those who remain isolated.  I wonder if these two types of individuals are the result of temperament differences. Perhaps some folks are more adaptive risk takers than others. Perhaps some folks are broader in their ability to find pleasure and happiness. Perhaps some people are more parochial by nature and though they feel an important need to leave a homeland or faith, due to their temperament they will have great difficulty creating an integrated new life.  Of course we all may virtuously rationalize our lives in non-temperament terms, but I wonder how much we really understand ourselves.


  1. “Expat” = (wiki) short for “expatriate”: a person residing in a lengthy time in a foreign land. Often confused with a non-existent word: “ex-patriot” and with connotations expat does not have. An expat can still be a patriot of their motherland.  [etymology: ex- “out of”, patrie- “native land”;  patris (Gr) “fatherland”, patros – “father”.]
  2. See another post on the notion of conscilience, here: “Meta-thought and Theology“,


Filed under Philosophy & Religion

21 responses to “Expats & the UnChurched

  1. Sabio, you said, “Religion & languages hauntingly share many properties such that, *understanding the sociological, philosophical and evolutionary properties of one, helps to immediately and deeply understand principles in the other.*”

    This is why I enjoy reading your blog. Of course, the content is provocative, but it’s the way you make associations across a large spectrum of concepts. I’m an association person too (meaning I get it, I suppose), but I can’t express those associations so well as you do.

    Anyway, thanks for the inspiration.

  2. @ Paul
    Wow, thanks. That was a compliment that means a lot.

  3. Bridging into another discipline, in the corporate cubical world, they have observed that there are essentially three kinds of attitudes when new major policies are birthed. You’ve got early adapters; those who immediately accept, learn, and change to follow those policies. You’ve got those in the middle of the road; those who will change over after much more time, learning, and convincing. Then you’ve got conservatives; they resist the change regardless of arguments, and only adapt when they are absolutely forced to do so.

  4. Always we must balance the basic life forces of individuality and togetherness. Over-involvement and distancing both grow out of the challenge of balancing individuality and togetherness. Why some are inherently more parochial and others more open is a mystery to me.

    I don’t know know if we’ll ever understand it mainly because I don’t know if I will ever be able to answer the same questions of myself.

  5. @ Luke,
    This post was about different temperaments. It was not about the pull between individuality and togetherness that happens in all people.

    Expats can have lots of togetherness with fellow expats without mixing with local culture. Have a read again, if you like.

  6. That’s the problem with the difference between the artist’s intent and how the viewer takes it. Added my two cents, take it or leave it.

  7. @ Luke,
    I love your two cents. But even more when it actually relates to the post. My posts aren’t intended to be like poetry or Rorschack Inkblot Tests where “free serve-yourself” interpretations are expected. I take time to organize the points, and point to focused themes. I try to discourage speed reading where the reader is not concerned about what the author says, but wants to read just enough to say something they think is important.

  8. Didn’t do what you claim. I loved your last paragraph but felt it just labeled “the religious” and “ex-pats” as guilty. I thought that these themes resonated with more than your two groups and thus my response.

  9. Again, I am not sure you understand the post. I am not labeling expats and the religious as guilty. I am talking about transition patterns as linked to temperaments.

  10. Guilty of the transition patterns which are linked to temperaments of which I see rising out of the inherent struggle we all have as human animals to balance the forces of togetherness and separateness, understanding of personal history and present sense of self. That’s what I see from what you have written. All apologies if that observation is some how not on task.

  11. I am describing 2 types of expats and 2 types of unchurched who take different roads based on their temperaments.

  12. Christine

    Hey Sabio,

    From my experience, the reasons for leaving a church come into play here. Those who have also left the faith may be more likely to “integrate” into a secular culture than those who leave because of corruption and abuse but still generally believe that secular culture is pure sin. Maybe some are so extremist that no church will be strict enough and isolation is the only recourse. Some immigration could see the same pattern – some may move purely for economic opportunity but still despise the culture to which they have moved, while others may be full converts to a new way of life and political and social discourse, integrating easily. This could still be an issue of temperament – but perhaps illustrates that it is the consequences of a certain temperament *before* a move and not after, with the integration or not question almost inevitable even before departure.

    Personally, I had an awkward foot in both worlds before being “unchurched/rechurched/unchurched/quasichurched/unchurched yet again”. (Not being a lesbian – I was in the closet in the cultish one and in a welcoming congregation after that. At first it was about knowledge/education and social circles, and later became about questions and skepticism/critique.) I was never really not integrated in “the world”, but sometimes felt awkward about that in church. So, predictably, I seem perfectly “integrated” post-departure.

    But, even still, with little if any parochialism, it hasn’t always been easy. I still find I have less in common with people who haven’t had the “churched” experience – finding new friends (few friendships survive leaving a church) has been difficult. (But making friends with the odd churchgoer I meet in other circles is still surprisingly easy.) I still feel something missing – there’s a part of me almost still kept in reserve for just the right group of quasi-believers, a whole that’s now mostly filled by David’s blog and its followers (churched or not).

    So, my experience has been somewhere on the continuum rather than at either end. At first glance, though, I would appear in the perfectly integrated category, so perhaps it appears more dichotomous than it is.

    I’m wondering if there’s some part of my temperament that might account for this, since “parochial” isn’t going to explain it. You’ve given me something to think about.

  13. @ Christine,

    Wow, good point. People who leave (America or their Church) because of corruption or abuse may be less likely to integrate because they did not leave because of attraction to the other but out of avoidance of the one left behind. So they may long for what they never had in the land left behind.

    So not only temperament plays a role. Good points.

    I too found no relationships survived leaving the church — which told me a lot about “friendship”.

    Thanx for “wondering” with me. Glad you understood. I think people that have straddled worlds have much in common. Personally, it is my wish for people to realize that religion should be no barrier between people — as it often is. We don’t have to use the language of religion to talk to each other. Staying out of the cliques of your own religion will keep you trained to meet all people on real levels.

  14. Earnest

    Sabio what a resonant article. I feel at some times I have been more parochial, other times more included/inclusive. I could be accused of having a personality fault that somehow prevents me from consistently being my own man and resisting the sway I feel when blown about by the pressures of my peer groups.

    I think any human, at some level, wants to “belong” to a group of other people in some way. But with belonging comes some degree of loss of autonomy. Which may be what Luke was trying to get at.

    I recently had a patient who was driven to suicidality by the shunning she underwent when she was found by her Jehova’s Witness family members to have had premarital sex. I am really glad my un-churching has been more vague and listless than her emotionally violent and confrontational experience. Remarkably, she still feels that she is on good terms with her family. I don’t really get that.

  15. Earnest, that was the point I was trying to get at, however awkwardly.

  16. @ Earnest,

    Yeah, I wonder. I was a mingler in the countries where I live, but I felt no need to “belong” — it was more playful and exploratory. I was willing to stretch well outside of my familiar. That is more what I am talking about.

    But yes, you care much more for acceptance than I do. [BTW, readers, Earnest is a personal friend]. But that need, though interesting, is different than the one I am talking about here. For example, many Americans in Japan will get that happy belonging feeling by making lots of Japanese friends, but they will only be friends with those who can speak English to them — they won’t learn the language. Lots of folks have friends and invite them to their holidays, but they won’t participate in Japanese customs — or at least barely.

    See, different issue.

  17. Earnest

    I wonder if presence or absence of financial necessity plays a role in the language inclusiveness issue (which I concede I did not address). For example, first generation immigrants to this country often stay largely within a small part of an urban area where their home language is often used, often developing only rudamentary English. Their children on the other hand often grow up translating for the parents.

    Maybe it’s an age thing, with the kids having enough neural plasticity to learn a new culture?

  18. Earnest

    I have an ancestor that went to Cuba to run an organization, not speaking a word of Spanish. He had some leasure time and decided to read every word of the daily Spanish version of the New York Times, and was fluent within 12 months. But this to him was a challenging hobby, not mandatory for day to day survival.

  19. @ Earnest
    You bring up an interesting empirical question. I agree with your points. Here is a list of things which I think would make Immigrants are more likely to learn their foreign tongue:

    * They have time to study (less financial obligations)
    * If you are younger – a young mind picks up language easier
    * They are already educated in several languages
    * English is close to their mother tongue
    * Their livelihood depends on use of the language
    * They don’t walk into a huge community on non-speakers who will help provide the comforts they need without the language.
    * The detest the country they left and don’t want to be known by it.
    * They meet key individuals that don’t speak the language who they want to get close to
    * They have objectives here they can’t meet without the language
    * They are, by temperament, explorative and experimental
    * They are not averse to sounding foolish

  20. Earnest

    @ Sabio: your list really pulls the concept together well.

  21. Christine

    Hey Sabio, thanks. That’s what I was trying to get at. I’ve left for both reasons – process/structure and content/substance. There’s been doctrinal problems and abuse, but not for everything, everywhere all the time.

    So, my reasons for leaving are mixed, and my subsequent unchurching also seems mixed – probably because I half want to go back and half resolutely do not.

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