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The Vine: November 21, 2012

Submitted by on November 21, 2012 – 10:02 AM28 Comments

Happy American Thanksgiving, Nation. I’m thankful for all of you, and your hilarity, generosity, and insight. The Vine is off on Friday as I recover from my annual date with poultry, but if you have gifts what want hunting down/tough-to-shop-for in-laws/etiquette questions about crappy toys your kid got, I’m here for you. Keep ’em coming. 


I am in a weird situation and I need your wisdom. I grew up Christian and went to church every Sunday, it was very much just the standard way of life for our family and in later years, I went through what I believe a lot of people go through where they question religion and find that it is not for them. I am now atheist and happy with that decision even though it took a few years to get to that stage as the “fire and brimstone” fate of this way of life was very much ingrained in me from a very young age by the church.

My mom started attending a more progressive church community in my late teens and became very involved with them and immersed herself completely in religion. I have no problem with this, in fact I believe this helped her a lot in dealing with life and all the things she went through. I want to be clear that she is not some religious nut and even if she is, she is one of the good ones. She is honestly the sweetest, kindest most gentle person I have ever known. She is a teacher and apart from being a great one she is always involved in some sort of charity work, and I have seen what she has done for other people with the limited resources she has, from taking food to a very sick acquaintance every day for weeks at a time to volunteering to help out after hours/weekends with the disabled children at their school, etc. I know a lot of this comes from her faith as well as the fact that she is just an awesome person in general. In short, she was and is a fantastic mom and I would not change one thing about her.

So here is my dilemma, she is very concerned about the fact that I no longer have faith and not in the “I want you to attend church” way but like seriously concerned that I am heading to hell if I don’t start believing and soon. This is so ridiculous to me that I don’t know how to deal with it, and the only reason I am even asking for advice and not just ignoring the situation is that she is seriously worried about this and I can see it actually causes her a lot of grief which is the last thing I want for her. I can have a sane, rational discussion with my siblings about this (they are both Christian) and we agree to disagree and respect each other’s beliefs and that is that, it does not affect our relationships in other ways. The same conversation with my mom is not possible, we have tried before but it normally ends in her being more upset than ever.

I get that this for her comes from a genuine place of love and concern, she sincerely believes this stuff but I just cannot even begin to understand how this is actual fact for her. Personally I think this is a stupid situation as I feel like my reality and her reality is obviously different and I do not say this to diminish her beliefs, I think it is all valid as long as you put some reason and logic behind it.

I just don’t know how to get that across to her and I am hoping you have some magic answer that I can just print and give her to read (I know that is cheating but my fingers remain firmly crossed!).

Anyway, I know religion can be a difficult topic and this seems so trivial but it is actually a problem and I am hoping you and hopefully the rest of the readers can give me some advice.

Wow, I just drew a complete blank on how to end this…

Dear Blank,

What have you said to her on the topic so far? Like, what exact words did you use? Because if you said, in so many words, “I just cannot even begin to understand how this is actual fact for you,” or asked her to “put some reason and logic behind” her arguments in favor of you resuming faith, I think we’ve identified your problem. I don’t get the sense that you’ve taken that tack — and: don’t; the implication that her spiritual life is a long con won’t go over well — but just in case you have, now’s the time to course-correct.

But it doesn’t sound like this is about your handling of it, but rather that she’s genuinely concerned for your spiritual safety, and she won’t let it go. So, what to say that can change the subject without upsetting her? Well, the bad news is, I don’t know that you can have both. The good news is, if she’s choosing to continue getting upset instead of respecting your conclusions and trusting that she raised a level-headed child who can mind her own soul, that’s…her choice, and while it’s never a good time when a parent starts crying, she has all the information she needs to get okay with your atheism, and you can’t beat yourself up too much if she’s not using it.

So, here’s one script. “Mom, I know this comes from a place of sincere love and concern, and thank you for caring, really — but nothing has changed since the last time we discussed this, and because it inevitably upsets you, I really don’t think we should discuss it again.” Big kiss, big hug, follow-up back-pat, change of topic or departure from room.

The trick here is twofold: 1) make your refusal to engage about her happiness, and 2) stick it. Do not engage. “Mom…[rueful chuckle]…I love you. Did you hear that that prat Mike Hunt married a 17-year-old?” “Thanks, Mom; I hear you. Now what’s your secret with those peonies.” Again, she has a problem with your atheism; you need, gently and with love, not to take it on for her.

You might also consider enlisting your siblings’ help if the whole fam is spending time together. Ask them if they wouldn’t mind wingmanning for you in conversations and help you head her off. But don’t let yourself get frustrated or drawn in. It’s hard at first and some people never do get the hint, but hang in there.




  • Maria says:

    Wow, you live my life with some small changes. I have a sister I would call sorta-semi-spiritual who periodically mentions how sad she is that I can’t be up in heaven with her because I don’t believe.

    Because it’s a sister and not a parent, I don’t really have a problem with what she thinks happens after we die. IMO it’s her business.

    But anytime she gets to dogging me with her beliefs, I tell her that I actually believe a LOT of things. I believe life is too important in the now to worry about what happens when we die. I believe I have a lot I want to do with the time I have, and I try to devote as much time as I can to helping. I believe that things have a way of working out. And so on.

    I think all we can do is love the other person as they are, and hope they will do the same for us. I am also not above asking for that very thing. If the person then says that they will pray for me, I am fine with that. If prayer helps them calm down, then it’s all for the best and it’s a big fat win all around.

    Good luck with your mom. I hope she can calm down.

  • Isis Uptown says:

    My mother is praying “like Saint Monica” for her atheist children (who are quite middle-aged), and “Saint Monica was successful.” I tell people that if my brother or I return to The Church, Mom and Saint Monica are the reasons. But, our situation is different, as Mom doesn’t bring it up, except that she told me the Saint Monica thing.

  • Lindsay says:

    Wow, Blank, until you got into some specific details I thought you might be my husband. He’s an Atheist, I’m Agnostic, friends and family are Christian. I’m happy to understand, from Sarah’s thoughtful response, that we’re handling their concern for our souls in the best way possible!

  • Sean says:

    I personally see faith as a private matter, so I don’t fully understand what it feels like to be in a family or religion that expects you to share or explain what you believe explicitly (as opposed to implicitly doing things, like showing up to church). And I don’t know if you’re trying to get acceptance or respect for your specific beliefs or worldview.

    However, if your goal is to make your Mom feel better and not worry, then wouldn’t you be better off heading into a white lie or grey area? You don’t have to lie about faith (ick), but you could express the extent to which it’s normal for people to have religious journeys or faith that gets questioned and rediscovered. There are biblical role models for this. So you could frame things to your Mom in terms of “yet” and tell her that you expect to find peace/acceptance/belief in due time & it is something you continue to grapple with – personally and privately – but that true faith does not stem from coercion by other people, so you don’t think it helps you on this path to belief to talk about it with her like this anymore. It seems like a middle road of “I don’t believe this and I never will” and pretending to believe something you don’t.

    It is kind of you to want to shelter your Mom from this pain and worry. But if she’s going to experience grief over the “what if” that you could get hit by a bus tomorrow without ever gaining entrance to heaven, then really, that’s on her. That’s the price of having a worldview where the most kind and decent person can lose out on heaven if they die young/instantly/without having been exposed to this faith/etc.

  • TexasAnnie says:

    I have pretty much the same thing in my family (with a few extra wrinkles that could be their own Vine letter), but Sars is right. It’s your Mom’s issue, not yours, so all you can do is let her know that you don’t want to upset her, but you’re doing what’s right for you and that isn’t changing, so getting upset helps nobody and just creates unnecessary unpleasantness.

  • Leigh says:

    I’m sorry that you’re distressed by your mom’s distress here, but ultimately, Sars is right. You can’t change her, she can’t change you, so you just don’t talk about it. Just. Don’t. If she’s absolutely cornering you, something like “Thanks, Mom; I hear you. Now what’s your secret with those peonies.” is perfect. If it’s just coming up in conversation around you and you’re feeling like you have to say something, though, DON’T. Ignore ignore ignore. Nod and smile. Seriously, your silence is not consent, it’s just family peacekeeping.

    When I have conversations with my grandmother about religion (i.e. she starts talking about it in my presence, praying over a meal, whatever), I just substitute “God” in my head for whatever version makes sense to me–I’m not on board with some dude with a white beard sitting in a throne in the clouds, but in a lot of instances “Nature” “The Greater Whole” “Everything” “The Universe” whatever works just as well, and that makes me much more able to nod my head and feel more comfortable with the conversation. I can even say to her with honesty that I do believe in God–it just means something different to me.

    Good luck. Family can be complicated enough even when you’re all on the same page!

  • attica says:

    You might try and give her that job to do, as part of not engaging (which, seriously, you Must Not Do). As in: ‘Oh, Blank, you can’t come to heaven!’ ‘Aww, Mom, don’t worry; you’re praying enough for us both — that’s how awesome you are. More potatoes?’

  • kim says:

    I have this exact same issue/conversation with my mom, and Sars’s advice is spot on. My mother’s religious belief and concern for me are both genuine, as are my absolute lack of religious feeling and desire not to be hassled about it. No good has ever come of our conversations on the topic. She gets upset, I get frustrated, no one is happy. And so you have to just avoid the conversation entirely. It’s not easy, and it takes some repeating, but it can work. You just have to keep reinforcing that boundary, politely but firmly.

  • ConchExPat says:

    I am a Unitarian Universalist church member. There is this story that the kids are told about why the UU church doesn’t believe in hell. It’s attributed to John Murray, but is probably apocryphal.It usually gives people a handle on believing in a Christian God, but not hell. Maybe it would help Blank.

    “John Murray was a travelling preacher, and he often stayed at a particular inn. On one of his stays, the innkeeper took him aside, and confessed that he thought his son was going to hell. His son was a drinker, a gambler, a womanizer. As a matter of fact, on this night, his son was out gambling. Murray told the innkeeper he had a plan.

    “Go dig a pit on your son’s pathway home. He’ll be drunk, it will be dark, and he’ll fall in. Then you must set him on fire. Problem solved.”

    The innkeeper was horrified. He said, “He’s my son! No matter what he’s done, he’s still my son and I love him. I could never do that to him.”

    “Exactly,” said Murray. “God is our divine Father. He loves us even more than we love our children, and if you love your son too much to consign him to flame, our heavenly Father’s perfect love for us most certainly means he would never condemn us to hell.”

    I’m not Christian myself, but when I tell this story to Christians who believe in hell, it often resonates for them. It’s worth a try.

  • Kristin says:

    Big WORD to ConchExPat. That’s a great story, and a perfect resolution to the “but my child needs to believe too” issue.

    Blank, everyone here has given you good advice, but as someone from the other side (I am Christian, my two closest friends are atheists) a couple of other points:

    1. Just as much as you are stymied by your mom’s belief in her reality, she is equally stymied by your belief in yours. It’s not a matter of her not understanding the lack of empirical data, it’s a matter of her feeling that her ability to do good IS proof of God, so Sars is right that you won’t change that. But it may help to understand it.

    2. Bearing the above in mind, please remember not to patronize. Both viewpoints have equal validity and she’s your mom! :-)

    3. Every week in church the minister asks us to pray for those who feel disconnected from God; your mom’s church probably has a similar situation. So, you may never get her to entirely drop the subject if she’s getting a weekly “dig” at church, but if that’s true, you may want to remind her that she’s praying for you so you feel her protection, if that makes sense.

    Good luck!

  • clobbered says:

    Along the lines of ConchExPat’s comment…

    Christianity is a pretty wide umbrella. My understand is there are theologies within it that hold that as long as you live a Christian life (not as a churchgoer, but the kind of life that Jesus would approve of – help the poor etc) then you are okay.

    Like the old joke goes, sitting in Church doesn’t make you a Christian any more than sitting in a garage makes you a car.

    So maybe just say something along the lines “I am a good person, right mum? Good people don’t go to hell”. Just say it kindly and with confidence and then change the subject.

  • ferretrick says:

    I think the refuse to engage is the best topic, but you can also try something like, “I try to live my life as a good person-morally and ethicly, to make right choices, to cause no harm to others, and to do good works. I don’t always succeed, like anyone else, but I try. And you are telling me that a loving God is going to send me to the same place as say, Charles Manson, because I don’t believe in him? That he would never let us be together again? I’m sorry, Mom, I can’t accept that. I’m happy for you if your faith brings you joy, but it does not make sense for me. Thanks for respecting my views as I respect yours.” Then decline to discuss further.

  • Jen S 1.0 says:

    One of my favorite Anne Lamott quotes (I think she’s actually quoting someone else, but) is “You can safely conclude you’ve created God in your own image if it turns out He hates all the same people you do.”

    Now, your mother is the kind of Christian who gives the rest of us a good name as opposed to a bad one, so I’m sure she doesn’t practice the hate-filled self delusions that passes for “faith” far too often nowadays. But the quote is relevant, I think.

    It’s hard to accept, as a religous person, both the idea that a) my loved one won’t go to heaven if he/she does not believe X and, just as importantly, b) God may forgive my loved one, but does that mean he also forgives Pol Pot/Hitler/Fill In Monster as well?

    The cognitive dissonance can lead to stress, which can lead to panic. Your mom doesn’t want to think of you on the same team as a true evildoer, but her faith teaches that there may be no “out” for you. So she freaks out a bit, understandably.

    The only thing either of you can do is accept it. She has to accept that true faith can come to mean having to choose between teachings and what her own, personal faith tells her about goodness, the different forms goodness takes here on planet Earth, and that it’s hard. You have to accept this is a hard journey for her, and all you can do is keep living a good life and being a good person.

    Don’t engage. Engagement leads to wrestling in quicksand–flailing, panic, stuckness. Accept. It will pull you out of the quicksand and you’ll both be on firmer ground.

  • Jen B. says:

    Ferretrick, you suggest a quick statement to the mother that includes, “I’m happy for you if your faith brings you joy,” which caught my eye. It’s clear that this is one belief of hers that doesn’t bring her joy; in fact, it makes her miserable.

    I don’t know that it’s such a bad idea for Blank to point that out to her in the context of delivering the ConchExPat story. Maybe she’ll see that she can be a good Christian without believing that one thing, and she’ll be a lot happier, too?

  • coleBlue says:

    Have her read the Chronicles of Narnia! No wait, I’m serious. In the last book God/Jesus/Aslan lets a worshipper of Tash (the “evil” god [sadly, there’s some racist issues going on there]) into Narnia Heaven because he was a good person even though he believed in the “wrong” god. Like, there’s this whole spiel about how when you do good acts in Tash’s name you’re really doing them in Aslan’s name and when you do bad acts in Aslan’s name, you’re really doing them in Tash’s name. So, by extension, when you’re a good person in nobody’s name, Aslan/God/Jesus/Whoever still respects that, and isn’t gonna penalize you for it.

    Full disclosure: I read the Chronicles of Narnia many, many times before it was pointed out to me that Aslan was supposed to Jesus, and I probably never would have figured it out on my own.

    I was raised Unitarian Universalist (UUs in the Nation represent!)and The Last Battle was very formative in terms of me deciding I didn’t believe in god (as C.S. Lewis rolls in his grave), in the sense that no god worth believing in would actually care whether or not I believed in him, her, or it. Most days I’m an atheist, but when I’m feeling particularly agnostic, I still feel the need to point out that even if I had definitive proof that the Christian God and Jesus and all that exists, I still wouldn’t actually be Christian. Wanting and/or requiring worship automatically makes you unworthy of same in my book.

  • Vanessa says:

    Much in the same vein as the rest of the Nation’s advice, do not engage. My family skews much more toward the Evangelical side, and in college, I decide I did not believe what they did. We had many fights including not talking for months, cutting vacations short, and having my mom tell me she feared for my immortal soul.

    What eventually worked for us was not talking about it; the caveat being that my future husband attends church, even though it took two years for me to tell my parents that so I think they are more comfortable with me not going to church by proxy. My parents believe there are certain things, like going to church and reading the Bible, a person needs to do to get into heaven. I don’t agree with their views and we are generally at an impasse with convincing the other to our point. We found a neutral zone where we acknowledge are views differ and there is nothing the other can do about.

    Whenever they bring up religion or church, especially when they say they are generally praying for me, I say thank you and move on.

  • John says:

    I’m an atheist who was raised Catholic, and I had a very Catholic great-uncle who was married to a Protestant woman. When she died (40 years ago) he was absolutely distraught, because during his youth Catholics were taught that all non-Catholics went to hell after death, and he honestly believed she was burning.

    His family encouraged him to talk to a priest, who (thank goodness) told him is was nonsense — that God judges on actions, and if her actions were good she would be in heaven. There are a few biblical quotes to back that assertion up. Perhaps you could find someone else in your mother’s church to intercede and point this out to her; it might be more convincing coming from another believer.

    (although, admittedly some flavours of Christianity reject this idea… but given your mom’s track record, let’s hope this isn’t one of them).

  • Bitts says:

    Just real quick – that “but I’m a good PERSON” perspective is probably not going to fly with Blank’s mom. The more Evangelical Christians are pretty clear that they are “justified by FAITH,” (and faith, only) which means that “good works” are pretty much meaningless. The origination of this line of thinking was Luther, who rejected buying indulgences (credit for doing “good works”), and all that. The ONLY thing that matters to Evangelical Christians (in terms of getting into Heaven) is an individual’s faith in Christ. That is, you can do all manner of horrible behavior on Earth, but if you “Accept Jesus Christ As Your Personal Savior” (and thus become “born again”)then you will be going to Heaven, NQA. “Doing good deeds” and “being a good person” are common phrases that are roundly rejected by Evangelical Christians as “excuses,”and do not bear any weight against one’s afterlife.

    I am a Christian, myself, and I do not belive this WHATSOEVER. Catholics do not, (they’re cool with good works) and most mainline Protestant / German Reformed theologies don’t either. But I betcha Blank’s mom does, and those phrases might set her off!

  • Barb says:

    Even Mother Teresa sometimes doubted the existence of God, because of all the suffering she witnessed.

    I agree with Sars that DO NOT ENGAGE is the best approach. But if you feel you must talk about this with your Mom, why not start by talking about Mother Teresa. Is she in hell for doubting?

    By talking about the issues but not about yourself, you might make some headway.

  • Rachel says:

    There is one piece of advice that I was given when I was a newly-minted mom and I think it would work well here, too. It was to listen to what the other person had to say, then smile, nod, and say “I will think about what you’ve said.” That could work in this situation as well. Maybe not forever, but it could buy you some time while you work out what else you need to do/say to placate your mom.

    Also, can I just say that I am so pleased with the thoughtful and reasoned comments on this post? I know Sars moderates a bit so there aren’t the types of trolls that infest most other places on the internet, but it seems to me that The Nation is made up of especially smart and caring (and good-looking) individuals.

    Happy Thanksgiving, Nation. :)

  • Ben says:

    As a spirit filled Christian I think I might have a different side to offer on this one than some of the rest of the readers and Sars. I would highly recommend against talking about what does or does not qualify someone for heaven or hell. You don’t believe in those things (right?) and you view them as ridiculous, that’s a pretty rocky foundation for any argument you would want to make one way or the other. It would just prolong the conversations and give her talking points to address or give her hope that if she can come up with a good enough argument, you will change your mind, which is not the case.

    I would recommend gently but firmly telling your mother that nothing she is going to say will convince you. Let her know that the more she talks about it, the less interest in it you have and the more it makes you not want to talk about it. Tell her that if she wants something in you to change, she is going to need to pray about it and trust that God has it under control.

    I hope that helps.

  • M. Nightingale says:

    I think Sar’s suggestion is the way to go on how you handle the conversation between you and your mother. Still, to her, it’s a real fear, a dreadful fear, and maybe your siblings could help her to deal with that. Would one of them be willing to suggest to your mother that “knowing Christ” isn’t mere lip-service, “Oh, I’m a Christian,” but knowing Christ by living a good life emulating his, and thus, you know Christ and are not hell-bound? That might be a useful notion to her, depending on sect.

  • MizShrew says:

    I think others have offered good advice, (RE not engaging, asking the sibs to help) but wanted to offer one bit of insight my sister-in-law provided when I was struggling with how to respond to a similar issue. For evangelical Christians, it is not enough to be saved themselves, they are duty-bound to save others. She described it this way: It’s not enough to realize that the bridge is out and to take a safer route — you must let others know that the bridge is out and show them the safe way as well.

    This doesn’t help with how to respond, per se, but might help understand where Blank’s mom is coming from and help guide the way you disengage. You need to be sure not to discount or appear to be patronizing her fears, because it will just make her redouble her efforts. She needs to believe that you may find that safe path eventually. Does this make sense? Good luck — these are always sticky situations.

  • misspiggy says:

    God, apparently, gave us free will so that our choice to worship him had meaning and value. Once other Christians have put all the arguments and evidence before a non-Christian, the non-Christian has to make the choice to have faith out of free will, not out of guilt or obligation. Otherwise, the whole basis of Christianity falls apart.

    So therefore your mum, as a good Evangelical Christian, having tried everything in her arsenal, now needs to accept that she has done her part and it’s up to you to exercise your free will. You could tell her that you are truly grateful for her efforts and you have a lot of information about Christianity on which to make a choice. Now she just has to leave it up to you, and she should be easy that she has done her best. You can tell her that if you converted only to make your mum feel better, your conversion would have no worth in the eyes of God.

    You could encourage her to confirm this viewpoint with a priest. To help her seek resolution for her anxiety, you could also present the situation as just another part of the fears that all parents have to deal with – letting their children go into the world and take risks. In this case, in addition to the risks you take when you have to cross the road, you have to take risks with your soul. That is what letting your child grow into independent adulthood means – letting them take risks, and letting go of your responsibility for them.

  • misspiggy says:

    I just had to come back and say that I’ve never understood how such a cruel religion can be so popular. Christianity seems to either drive people into intolerant superiority or tortured anxiety. What can the payoff possibly be, particularly when many people can live a good life and do good things without faith? Are people so afraid of death that they have to make themselves and others miserable while they are alive? Apologies for going off-topic but have got all worked up now…

  • Leigh says:

    @misspiggy, you are absolutely right about free will. God wants our hearts, not our butts in a pew.

    I can see how it all seems unappealing; sadly, Christians are not always good advertisements for their faith. I can only speak for myself, but the reason I hang onto my faith despite the way Christians sometimes act is not out of a fear of death, but out of love and hope. I don’t believe in a God of intolerance, or even tolerance for that matter–I believe God LOVES every single one of us, not just tolerates us. And so I love him, and in loving him I try to show love to others. For me, the payoff is the peace that comes with knowing I am loved unconditionally, and knowing that my soul will live after my body dies.

  • JT says:

    @misspiggy, Christianity at it’s core is most certainly not a cruel religion. Jesus was asked what the greatest commandment was and he replied, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself.” Those are the two most important commandments, love. Unfortunately, like anything that is popular, you get good and bad Christians, and the bad ones tend to be more vocal. The intolerant superior people will be intolerant about anything and they use Christianity as justification for thier intolerance. The tortured anxiety the good people feel is result of those intolerant people.

  • JT says:

    I also wanted to share this quote from Archbishop Desmond Tutu, which I think sums up my feelings toward the Christianity that I have hope for in the future.

    I think God is weeping. Jesus did not say, ‘If I be lifted up I will draw some’.” Jesus said, ‘If I be lifted up I will draw all, all, all, all, all. Black, white, yellow, rich, poor, clever, not so clever, beautiful, not so beautiful. It’s one of the most radical things. All, all, all, all, all, all, all, all. All belong. Gay, lesbian, so-called straight. All, all are meant to be held in this incredible embrace that will not let us go. All. Isn’t it sad, that in a time when we face so many devastating problems – poverty, HIV/AIDS, war and conflict – that in our Communion we should be investing so much time and energy on disagreement about sexual orientation? The Communion, which used to be known for embodying the attribute of comprehensiveness, of inclusiveness, where we were meant to accommodate all and diverse views, saying we may differ in our theology but we belong together as sisters and brothers, now seems hell-bent on excommunicating one another. God must look on and God must weep. – Desmond Tutu

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