“You could always come visit at West Hills.”
“Iiiiii don’t think so.”
“But you’ve never been there.”
“I’ve heard enough from you to know I’m not interested.”
“If she wants to hear an atheist give a sermon, she can just talk to you right now,” my wife chimes in.
This conversation with my mother yesterday encapsulates how things are between the two of us when it comes to religion. We had been discussing the current state of my childhood Baptist church, and her discontentedness with the current pastor and his methods. Despite claiming to be “on the edge” of leaving, she figured she could just “wait out” the pastor. She’s done it before, at least a half dozen times.
Once upon a time, mom and I had a great relationship. With our faith in common, we’d talk about Bible studies, Max Lucado books, and our shared love of the concept of grace. While my dad had been the more dogmatic of the two growing up, mom had the stronger convictions, having converted to Christianity as an adult. When I went through my “on fire for Christ” phase in middle school, mom had great resources to share with me, and every question seemed to have an easily accessible, black and white answer.
My loss of faith was hard on my mom. To be sure, my fervor for doubt wasn’t nearly as endearing as my fervor for Jesus, and just as I had done as a believer, my speech as a skeptic was barbed with accusations of bad intentions and intentional ignorance. Critics of atheists often say that atheists are just as fundamentalist as fundy Christians, and for good reason. A lot of the times we are.
Eventually I matured enough to leave faith discussions alone most of the time. But when it came up (and with a sister who became a tongues-speaking Pentacostal, it came up fairly often), the loss of trust was obvious. Any statement in opposition to her beliefs was a direct attack on the core of her identity. I was still her son, and she cared about me, but not at the expense of her church. We could discuss the past, but discussion of theology ended quickly with platitudes and changing of the subject. The lack of curiosity baffled me, and still does. A few months ago I asked her what it’s like to hold a belief system that maintains that her son, and people like him, are going to hell. “It makes me sad,” she said, referring to me going to hell, not to her belief that it’s true. The belief in hell, it was quite clear, was more important to her than I am.
I haven’t been a parent for as long as she has, but the idea of holding any idea as more important than my kids boggles my mind. My daughter took on a different faith structure than me at age five! It’s a challenge to choose my words carefully so that I never tell her she’s wrong, but it can be done. It certainly doesn’t create a barrier between us. In fact, her claim to believe in God led us to become church-goers again, a decision that seems wiser every day. I’m really looking forward to talking about this issue in twenty years; I want to ask what it was like to given free reign to choose her religious path. I’m hoping she’ll feel like she, and her thoughts, were always valued, even when they weren’t shared.