Atheist Guilt



Chris lives in Austin, TX, where he once shook Willie Nelson's hand.

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141 Responses

  1. Avatar Jaybird says:

    I’ve had a handful of moments that I am not exactly proud of when it comes to getting into the arguments with my mom.

    It’s kind of irritating because I know that she is worried about the state of my soul and the state of my eternity and that, from my perspective, she’s (to put it most kindly) borrowing trouble. We’ve (mostly) achieved détente by getting her to consider Universal Salvation but… yeah. I totally feel bad about 2 minutes into the drive home whenever a visit involves the topic.

    She sees doing her part to save my soul as a moral issue on her part… and, really, I can’t see telling her to stop trying to be a moral person on my behalf as anything even *CLOSE* to a reasonable request.

    But the visits are better when we don’t talk about it.


    • Avatar Chris says:

      Yeah, I go into my visits home dreading the conversation, and the inevitable invitation to church, which I never refuse. My youngest brother, who is also an atheist, or something akin to one, had my mother promise not to bring it up with him anymore, and she wouldn’t break that promise, but I don’t think that’s quite fair. What’s more, it’s resulted in me being the sole focus of her evangelism, made even more urgent by her belief, I’m pretty sure, that if she can save me, he will follow.

      And you’re right, you can’t ask loving, moral parents to act in a way that they consider less loving and moral because it would make you feel better about your own decisions.Report

    • Avatar Fish says:

      My Mom was on the Universal Salvation train long before I became an atheist, so we’ve never had a problem. My sister, on the other hand, is another story. She bribed me into reading The Case For Christ (it was a really good bribe), she attempted for a time to make us all pray before meals (my house, my rules. We gather at her place and she wants to pray, I play along), she sent my kids bible-based science books as gifts one year. We’ve reached an understanding, but she still considers my boys as fair game, so we’ve asked the boys to be polite but firm when it comes to their aunt and religion. As an atheist-getting-along-with-family stories go, I’ve had it pretty easy.Report

  2. Avatar zic says:

    Atheist guilt. From the perspective of the, “But how can you be moral?” questions I get, that sounds like an oxymoron.

    What about the contours of your mother’s guilt?

    Is it guilt that she failed to indoctrinate you properly? Guilt that she doesn’t respect you because she doesn’t respect your belief system? Guilt that maybe you’ve expressed something she feels but doesn’t dare contemplate? (I wonder if the people most public in their belief are trying to convince themselves of it; and that goes for fellow atheists, too.)

    Perhaps understanding her guilt here might give you a way to find some common ground to at least hold peace and love between you. Short of that, a few respectful lines, repeated firmly and often, “I understand you fear for my soul, understand that I love you, but cannot share your beliefs,” or some such, on broken record repeat when the topic arises.Report

  3. Avatar Glyph says:

    My folks mostly leave me be on the topic; maybe because I never went full atheist (never go full atheist!) the ambiguity of my situation leaves them a plausible sliver of hope that I may return to the fold on my own one day.

    Or, they’ve realized I’m stubborn enough that such talks would not only be pointless, but probably counterproductive from their POV, and people must make their own choices.

    They mean well, they love you, and in the end, if you’re right, it’s a trivial thing to butt heads over, though I understand the guilt over their psychic pain.

    (Of course, if they’re right, be prepared to hear an eternity of I told you so’s and why don’t you ever listen’s).Report

    • Avatar Burt Likko says:

      What do you mean by “full atheist,” @glyph ? I’m more critical of anti-theism than being firm in atheism. E.g., I would say, “if I go to church, it will just be to make you happy,” but I won’t say “you’re a bad person for going to church.”Report

      • Avatar Glyph says:

        Oh, it was really just a joke based on Tropic Thunder.

        I don’t consider myself an atheist because I’m a glass half full kinda guy. IMO there might – might – be something, somewhere, that we could conceivably call a god, or close enough to one as makes no difference – but if we ever find it, it will be both far simpler and far stranger than any concept thus far mooted for it.

        Basically, we can’t know, by definition, so to say “there is no” never made sense, to me. I leave the possibility open, and if tomorrow a miracle happens to me, or all of a sudden someone’s religion really started to make sense to me, I’d want to be open to that possibility.

        But I don’t expect it to happen.Report

      • Avatar Chris says:

        It’s going to be really freaky when we discover God somewhere in outer space and he looks just like George Burns.Report

      • Avatar Mike Schilling says:

        And that the Virgin Mary used to put frankincense in the myrrh jar and myrrh in the frankincense jar because people always mix then up and now when they do they’re right.Report

      • Avatar Glyph says:

        Let’s call me a maybeist.Report

      • Avatar Glyph says:

        Rather than a beatific, closed-eye “OM”, the maybeist mantra is a quizzical “Eh..”, accompanied by a shrug with upturned palms.Report

      • Avatar greginak says:

        Ahh so you live in Mayberry. Andy Griffith would make an easy going folksy kind of god. Of course he is dead to me.Report

      • Avatar Chris says:

        An old friend of mine used to call himself an apatheist.Report

      • Avatar Glyph says:

        That’s not bad, but I think mine reflects my glass-half-fullness better.

        “Is there? Maybe..could be…ah, who the hell knows. Wanna grab a beer?”Report

      • Avatar Michael Drew says:

        A couple of friends of mine actually recorded a few podcasts under the name The Apatheist. It turns out, if you’re a practicing apatheist, there’s not a lot to talk about wrt to your apatheism a lot of the time. So they mostly talked about other stuff.Report

      • Avatar Michael Drew says:

        Actually, it’s “The Apatheism Podcast.”Report

      • Avatar Troublesome Frog says:


        I leave the possibility open, and if tomorrow a miracle happens to me, or all of a sudden someone’s religion really started to make sense to me, I’d want to be open to that possibility.

        I don’t really know of any atheist who wouldn’t change in the face of overwhelming evidence. It seems a pretty reasonable position. I don’t believe in any gods, but I could be convinced. I don’t believe in unicorns, but if you brought one to me, I’d change my mind in a heartbeat. I don’t think I’d ever say, “I’m not really a non-believer in unicorns because I could theoretically be convinced that they’re real if I saw one.”

        This is why I’ve become more and more uncomfortable with the word “agnostic” as most people use it. It seems to be a way of creating a class of people who actively believe that there are no gods and who wouldn’t ever possibly change their minds under any circumstances. I really don’t think such people exist in any significant number.Report

      • Avatar Kim says:

        plenty of people wouldn’t worship unicorns if they popped into existence.
        I’ve known a few people who believed that religion was so detrimental to humans that they’d never partake.

        There are skeptics — they come up with tests, to see if something really exists.

        Then there are true skeptics (like the global warming “skeptics”), who would take more than a miracle to believe in God.

        (I’m thinking about this a touch more personally, having talked recently about a friend of mine who has photographic memory).Report

      • Avatar Jaybird says:

        Could I ask “what evidence?”

        A sufficiently interesting dream? A sufficiently spectacular hallucination? A sufficiently advanced level of technology?Report

      • Avatar Glyph says:

        @troublesome-frog -hmm, I may be misusing it then, from your POV? Agnostic (which I take to mean “we can’t know”) seems to describe where I’m at, better than the stronger statement of an atheist’s “I believe there are none”, or “I disbelieve”.

        Sometimes I have a nagging feeling that this all must mean *something* – your mind and mine, communicating like this across space and time.

        Other times I am sure that any apprehension of “meaning” is a neurochemical lie, superimposed over completely-random chaos.

        I don’t believe; neither do I disbelieve (at least in general theoretical concepts; I sure as hell may disbelieve certain specific claims believers may make) in God(s).

        I entirely withhold judgement on the question of whether there may be a God(s).

        That makes me agnostic, no?

        Honestly (truly – this isn’t meant to be condescending, or imply an equivalence you’d find offensive), I envy people who are able to proudly proclaim themselves atheists, much as I envy the comfortably religiously-faithful like my grandmother – they both appear to have reached a certainty that I haven’t and perhaps never will, here in my Schrodinger’s skull.

        It must be comforting, either way.Report

      • Avatar Chris says:

        I used to describe myself as a philosophical agnostic and an ethical atheist, but that led to really long explanations, so now I just say atheist. I live as though there is no god, but I’m not so foolish as to believe that my reason has penetrated to the very depths of the cosmos and come back empty-handed.Report

      • Avatar Glyph says:

        There’s this really tall wall that we can’t see over, and we are heading toward it at speeds that will smash us right through it.

        The believer says “God’s on the other side of that wall.”

        The atheist says, “There’s nothing on the other side of that wall but silence and dust and time.”

        I say, “Well, I guess we’ll see when we get there, and do the best we can ’til then.”Report

      • Avatar Chris says:

        I say, “Someone hit the friggin’ breaks!”Report

      • Avatar Glyph says:

        @jaybird – not sure if that was directed at me, but an anecdote: my deeply-religious (and dearly-missed) grandmother saw, or thought she saw, or was sure she saw, an angel at one point.

        She never had a day of doubt, that the universe was as she believed it to be.

        If I saw an angel (and made reasonably sure it wasn’t one of you jokers with a bullhorn, a hotel bathrobe and a spotlight), I guess I’d be silly to feel other than she did.

        I told her how much I envied her; because for the rest of us, it ain’t that easy.

        We usually don’t get ‘proof’.Report

      • Avatar Jaybird says:

        Well, the question was more rhetorical.

        In any case, as you yourself point out: “(and made reasonably sure it wasn’t one of you jokers with a bullhorn, a hotel bathrobe and a spotlight)”.

        It seems to me that there’s a lot of space to say that it’s more reasonable to say that there was a joker with a bullhorn, a hotel bathrobe, and a spotlight than, say, Ezekiel was right. You can even get special effects companies involved.

        There’s a fundamental assumption when it comes to “okay, at what point is my skepticism unreasonable?” when it comes to the evidence we’re presented with. I mean… your grandmother’s evidence wasn’t sufficient for you, was it? If that’s too close to the bone, I hope you think that it’s not out-of-bounds for me to say that it’s not sufficient for me. Additionally, I think we can all agree, even those who believe, that it’s not particularly a big deal that it’s not sufficient for me.

        Which brings me back to the “what evidence would be sufficient?” question. Is there a point at which it’s *NOT* more reasonable to say “I must be dreaming and/or in the matrix” than “this is happening the way that it appears to be happening”?Report

      • Avatar Chris says:

        And that’s sort of the thing about skepticism (the thing that all the non-skeptical philosophers have been warning us about for 2000 years): it always treads on infinitely, unless we cut it off with some sort of non-skeptical tool.Report

      • Avatar Glyph says:

        @jaybird – Not sure I understand your question. I guess my answer is how I originally phrased it: If I, personally, first-hand witnessed a miracle of some kind – something that I could not explain by any other means – then maybe I’d believe then. Second-hand reports aren’t going to cut it – this is important.

        Maybe the Great Cosmic Shoe makes an appearance from the sky and squashes someone right in front of me.

        And it seems to me that the existence of a sufficiently-advanced Matrix might as well imply a “god”, or at least as close to one as makes no difference, to our puny human minds. At some point, “live or Memorex?” ceases to really matter.

        And if you are going to ask me when that point is reached, I can only say ’42’.

        EDITED TO ADD more info on The Great Cosmic Shoe.Report

      • Avatar Kim says:

        I’ve personally witnessed inexplicable, and frankly weird things.
        But I’d hardly count them as miracles, even the ones that someone
        who was Christian might.Report

      • Avatar Troublesome Frog says:


        Yes, I think that’s a pretty reasonable description of an agnostic. If you’re really and truly neutral on the god question, I’ll give you a lot of credit. I feel like it’s similar to being completely neutral (as opposed to being open minded) about the werewolf question. It takes more neutrality than I can really muster.

        My issue is hearing people say what amounts to, “Well, I don’t believe gods exist, but I could be convinced, so I’m not some lunatic atheist. Those guys are totally unreasonable.” That strikes me as a definition so narrow as to be useless. I mean, nothing is really certain. I think Bertrand Russell had it about right when he said, “When one admits that nothing is certain one must, I think, also admit that some things are much more nearly certain than others.”Report

      • Avatar Mad Rocket Scientist says:


        Isn’t that the definition of an Agnostic?Report

      • Avatar Troublesome Frog says:


        For me, it’s possible but it would take quite a lot. If the only explanations I could think of were God, advanced aliens messing with my head for kicks, and being plugged into the Matrix, I’d probably be willing to take God as the most reasonable conclusion. Of course, that doesn’t mean that I wouldn’t change my mind if I later saw some evidence that it was aliens.

        If the reasonable explanations seem to include “people playing a really elaborate prank” or “kooky dreams because I ate too many onion rings” I’d be pretty reluctant to take the plunge to the God conclusion.Report

      • Avatar Kim says:

        if you can find an empiricist willing to talk about god,
        they do say that the world looks suspiciously like
        a computer simulation (mainly in how easy it is to

      • Avatar Glyph says:

        @troublesome-frog – well, I find the werewolf comparison…Troublesome, perhaps appropriately. While a werewolf is technically a supernatural creature (though of course it has its own legendary laws to obey, unlike God who is completely unbound), a werewolf’s components and epiphenomena are knowable to me – I’ve met many humans, and seen some wolves and some full moons; but never have I seen, or spoken to anybody credible who’s seen, or seen fossil evidence of etc., a werewolf. So I can take a pretty confident guess at the (non) existence of werewolves.

        I’m non-neutral on werewolves.

        God is an entirely different proposition. Like it or not (I’m guessing “not”), the components of God have been (conveniently?) defined by believers so as to ensure their unknowability. God is not able to be perceived by my limited senses, nor comprehended by my mind; Dude even lives outside space/time, while space/time is where I get my mail delivered and where I find that all the good pizza joints are.

        So when asked, “does God exist”?, the only reasonable answer, it seems to me, is “I dunno – and neither do you, nor anybody else, because the term “God” has been defined in such a way that ‘dunno’ (or “can’t know”) is the only available, logical answer.”

        Absent anything else, I can neither believe, nor disbelieve, that which has been defined as completely out of all ken.Report

      • Avatar Glyph says:

        @mad-rocket-scientist yeah, I thought so. But I also thought that “maybeist” had a nice ring to it.Report

      • Avatar Troublesome Frog says:


        Fair enough. I’ll have to separate the notion of gods into two classes: To the extent that gods interact with our universe, I’ll put them in the werewolf category. The set of gods that live outside of space and time and don’t interact with our universe, I will concede, are unknowable. But in that case, I think the problem is less with the definition of “god” and more with the definition of “exists.” I’d say that “exists” is a pretty generous description of what such a god does.Report

      • Avatar Stillwater says:

        I tend to think the whole “do you believe?” thing gets overblown in our society, historically anyway, because of the potential consequences of failing to believe. The idea that a person continues to refrain from believing fully well knowing that they could go to H E double hockey sticks makes answering the question imperative. And you better answer it correctly! If there was nothing at stake, I just don’t think anyone would care all that much.Report

      • Avatar Chris says:

        While I think that the hell part is important I think that, at least in part, it is a sort of conscious rationalization of a more intuitive concern that many religious people have, particularly actively religious people.

        My parents’ friends and acquaintances fall into one of five categories, generally: (1) Old friends (from high school or college, say), (2) work-related, (3) neighbors, (4) people from their church, (5) people from their Bible study. The vast majority of their friends fall into (4) or (5), and many of (3) either go to their church (their minister lives down the street, e.g.) or are also deeply religious. Hell, their neighborhood has become a sort of Christian contemporary musician village (it’s weird, and makes the neighborhood’s weekly summer concerts kind of dull). In short, the vast majority of their friends and acquaintances are like them, Christian, and actively so.

        While they may be thinking, consciously, “Our son and grandson are going to go to hell if they do not come to Jesus,” they’re also thinking, perhaps less consciously (though I imagine it bubbles to the surface now and then), they are not one of US, and they need to become one of US. Attending their church surface, I saw this all too clearly. The whole thing was about distinguishing between US and THEM (and I definitely fall firmly within the THEM), and how important it was for US to take back society, and the world, from THEM. The week after I was there, they had this dude come and speak there. Since the separation between US and THEM is so important (I suspect it’s a big part of what religion is for, ultimately), and constantly reinforced, there may be a real sense of betrayal, and real in-group/out-group dynamics that can cause a great deal of stress when a loved transitions from the US to the THEM and stays there.Report

      • Avatar Stillwater says:


        After I wrote the above comment, I got to thinking about the psychological dynamics implied in the question “do you believe in God?” For lack of a better word (and I’m sure there’s a better word!) it strikes me as a context driven binarization of what would otherwise be a pretty neutral question, one which would permit a range of answers other then an affirmative and enthusiastic yes. That is, any answer other than “yes” meets with a predictable response (or at least it used to, I don’t have these conversations anymore): “you know you’re going to hell don’t you?”

        So it’s very much an instance of an if-you’re-not-with-us-your-agin-us type thing. There’s two groups: the saved and the eternally doomed. And it seems to me that folks who speak in these binary terms impose the inevitability of eternal damnation on non-believers as a (sufficient!) motivation to reconcle their own uncertainty about the divinity of Jesus and all that. That is, to join the club.

        From a purely pragmatic psychological pov, there’s real genius in a social construct which requires people to express the unknowable with such certainty and conviction that it compels people who are entirely justified in rejecting the entire hypothesis into converting and all that that entails. It also, of course, creates a self-reinforcing loop where the condemned can be discarded and the discarded can be condemned.

        I wonder how much of this is derives from the first few hundred years of Christianity when Christians were persecuted.Report

      • Avatar Stillwater says:

        And one other dynamic, of course. The one you so eloquently wrote about in the OP.Report

      • Avatar Murali says:


        It doesn’t take genius. To paraphrase Richard Dawkins, any meme which does these things is going to have a better chance of replicating than a meme that does not put psychological pressure on persons to spread it and take it up. There is a reason the Abrahamic faiths supplanted the local religions and no one designed them to be that way. They just evolved to be like that.Report

      • Avatar Chris says:

        @murali, Argh, your paraphrasing (which is accurate) illustrates quite well one of the things I hate about memes (and one of the things that’s made them mostly useless as a scientific concept): in addition to being ambiguous about the proper level of abstraction (made worse when he adds the concept of a “memeplex”) at which to apply the concept of “meme,” what you said is essentially tautological.

        There are some really interesting and developing theories about how religion(s) develop and spread, including the sorts of features that promote spreading and survival over time, and none of them really rely on memetics.Report

      • Avatar Neil Obstat says:

        My brother refers to himself as a Militant Agnostic. He says if there was a motto, it would be along the line of “I don’t really know and NEITHER DO YOU!”Report

  4. Avatar Burt Likko says:

    I stopped having as much atheist guilt as @chris describes after my first trip to Italy. See, in my family the really religious people are my grandmother, who is from Italy, and my aunt and her husband. My parents accepted my atheism with minimal stress and have mostly seemed to come around to disbelief themselves. So I was nervous that my grandmother was typical and her siblings and their children would look askance at me not wanting to go to church. But it turned out most of the Italians didn’t go and indicated that they didn’t really believe, either. So I realized that my grandmother had been dealing with family blowing off religion for years even before I had realized my own atheism.Report

    • Avatar Chris says:

      In many ways, I wish my parents had remained Catholic, instead of converting to their relatively conservative version of Evangelical Protestantism about 15 years ago (my mother is Italian). My Catholic mother, while she would not have been happy about this, would have been much less upset than my Protestant mother, who has a preacher warning her and the rest of his flock every Sunday about the evils of the secular world and how THEY (meaning folks like me) hate Jesus.

      I started out writing a post about my most recent visit to my parents’ church, which was such a bizarre experience that I’m still trying to process it, but I was afraid it would come of as condescending when it wasn’t meant to be. But that place certainly ain’t helpin’.Report

    • Avatar NewDealer says:

      How did you end up with your last name if you are Italian?Report

  5. Avatar NewDealer says:

    As a Jewish person from a not very religious family, I find all this stuff to be “fascinating” to borrow a phase from everyone’s favorite Vulcan.

    Judaism does not have the concept of hell that Christianity developed. Our version of “hell” is still supposed to be more peaceful than life on earth because life on earth is full of pain and misery. So an atheist child does not produce the amount of distress that seems to happen in Christian families. Furthermore, Judaism does not believe that not being Jewish means a life of damnation.

    My parents are atheist but raised me Jewish for cultural and ethnic reasons. I’ve never wrestled with whether there is a God or not. My feelings are more like an apathetic agnostic much of the time with some doubts every now and then. I can just never buy any argument on why a one true God would create more than one religion and people could be damned for the random luck of not being born in the chosen religion. That is not the act of a God of love and compassion.Report

    • Avatar Kim says:

      Beg to differ on an atheist child.
      Being atheist is a sure ticket to never getting invited to any family event ever… at least in Israel.
      You’re not Jewish? Why would we invite you to Passover?Report

    • Avatar dhex says:

      yeah, but then you got that weird “i’m not religious but i gotta marry someone else from the tribe” thing going on.

      i wonder how atheist parents who raise a religious kid feel about it? do they feel like they messed up?Report

      • Avatar zic says:

        My younger sprout worked with an evangelical for a while, and started pondering out loud about it. I panicked during those conversations. But the influencer-in-question did something to discredit his credibility, I’m not clear on what, and the household returned to a normal state of reality.Report

      • Avatar NewDealer says:

        I think my mom would just like grandchildren. She told me she doesn’t care. I almost certainly care more about marrying a Jewish woman than my parents do. There are lots of intermarrying Jews. I think the pressure you speak of is old.

        That being said, I read an article many years ago about a Mormon woman married to a Protestant evangelical man. They seemed to make it work but the husband made no bones about how he thought his wife was going to hell.

        How can you deal with such a cognitive dissonance? How can you love someone deeply and think they are going to hell?

        Makes no sense to me.Report

      • Avatar Jaybird says:

        How can you love someone deeply and think they are going to hell?

        Imagine loving a smoker. You have a choice between thinking that they’ve got an increased risk of lung cancer and not thinking that they have an increased risk of lung cancer.

        Let’s say that you run with thinking that they’ve got an increased risk.

        Imagine running across the question “how can you love someone deeply and think that they’ve got an increased risk of lung cancer?”Report

      • Avatar Chris says:

        Jay, right. I can have philosophical differences with the very idea of hell, or of hell being contingent on me believing in a particular entity, but I completely understand that once you believe such things, and believe them deeply, applying them to loved ones is, in a sense, an act of love itself.Report

      • Avatar Murali says:


        The difference between Hell and Lung cancer seems to be the following: Lung cancer is just something you get. It is unfortunate, and perhaps the natural consequences of some actions, but it is not something that can be said to be deserved.

        I know on some accounts, Hell is just natural consequences, but that doesn’t seem to entirely fit as not only is there nothing natural about Hell, it takes an active agency (ultimately God) to

        a) Refuse to provide incontrovertible evidence in favour of His existence
        b) Sort you into the Damned queue
        c) Torture you while in Hell
        d) Keep you there perpetually/ or at least keep you out of heaven

        None of these are natural consequences. These are things done to me or allowed to be done to me by someone who is supposedly all powerful. In order for me to believe that you are going to hell and to believe that God rightfully keeps you out of Heaven, I must believe that you deserve to go to Hell. How can I stay married to a person if I think that person deserves eternal punishment? Its like loving a murderer. People do it, but it seems really weird and it seems we would not blame someone for leaving in horror.Report

      • Avatar Stillwater says:

        How can you love someone deeply and think they are going to hell?

        Flip it. How can you deeply love someone who believes an eternity of suffering and pain awaits anyone who fails to accept some dude as his personal savior?Report

      • @chris

        but I completely understand that once you believe such things, and believe them deeply, applying them to loved ones is, in a sense, an act of love itself.

        I get that. But I also think that for a lot of those who apply those ideas to loved ones, it’s also an act of control, too. I’m not sure you disagree, but I do think that’s part of it.Report

      • Avatar Chris says:

        Pierre, oh sure, much of what religion is is control, though I think it’s rarely consciously so. However, this sort of control within interpersonal relationships is basically ubiquitous, and if religion isn’t the medium through which it is exerted and exercised, something else usually will be.Report

      • @newdealer

        I think my mom would just like grandchildren. She told me she doesn’t care. I almost certainly care more about marrying a Jewish woman than my parents do. There are lots of intermarrying Jews. I think the pressure you speak of is old.

        That and your following anecdote about the Mormon/Protestant marriage are very interesting.

        First, for the record, I already have 9 nieces and nephews and, by last count, about 9 great-nieces and nephews. Therefore, I have almost no pressure from my end to provide grandchildren. My wife also has two nieces, and she, too, has almost no pressure from her side of the family to have children. (She does experience pressure from non-family busybodies who wonder why, just why!, she doesn’t children. I face no such pressure, probably because I’m a guy.)

        Second, my mother is Catholic and my father had been raised Lutheran. And when they married in 1954, his parents and especially his mother (I’m told) were strongly opposed to him marrying a Catholic. My mom’s family (I’m told) didn’t have a problem with his religion. Apparently my dad just decided to follow his heart. He even agreed to have a Catholic wedding. (He never converted, but I think part of the deal was that their children would all be raised Catholic, and I and my 5 siblings were indeed so raised.)

        Third, my own marriage is mildly “inter-faith” because my wife was raised Jewish. However, I think she would describe herself as more culturally Jewish while I, for a variety of reasons, describe myself as a mix of culturally Catholic/Evangelical. We celebrate a (very secular) Christmas with my family and celebrate Thanksgiving with her family. Occasionally one of her friends will invite her to a High Holy Days celebration (which is what I understand Yom Kippur and Rosh Hoshannah to be, but please correct me if I’m wrong) or to a seder. Our actual beliefs are in that gray, very vaguely defined territory of “agnostic,” but I’m beginning to doubt whether that’s the right word for what I believe and possibly for what she believes, too.

        Occasionally, we step on each others’ toes when it comes to the legacy of our religious and cultural upbringings. I won’t go into details about this, however, but just to say that it happens.Report

  6. Avatar Will Truman says:

    I vehemently object to this post… being tucked away on OTC. It should be featured as prominently as possible in my view.Report

  7. Avatar Al says:

    I too have religous parents who are hurt by my atheism. I don’t feel too guilty about this anymore. I think they have made peace with the fact that I am still a good person who refuses to lie to myself or them. The hardest fight, though, has been my children. They want their grandchildren to be part of the church, but I am adamant that my children receive only an education in competitive religion and then draw their own conclusions. I think my protective instincts outweigh any guilt I might feel over this, but it has been a bitter and straining battle at times.Report

    • Avatar Chris says:

      That’s the way I’ve approached religion as well: I encourage my son to learn about as many different views as he wants, and answer any questions I can with as little bias as I can. My parents do a pretty thorough job of presenting him with the Protestant Christian perspective, that’s for sure.Report

  8. Avatar Will Truman says:

    I really hope that this comment isn’t just jackassery of me. I separated it from the previous so that if it is against the spirit of the OP it can be removed without removing my compliment above.

    This post reminds me of why I feel so fortunate to have been raised an Episcopalian. My wife was raised Catholic, and while her experience with the church has made her critical of organized religion, she doesn’t have these conflicts either. It would be a… real problem, for both of us, if this weren’t the case.

    I can get by on Episcopalian in a way that I probably couldn’t as a Mormon. I feel like even with the doubts I’ve had over the years, I am loved and included in my church. That I am allowed to mentionally and emotionally explore the meaning of God without being a heretic. That reason, tradition, and faith are all a part of its creed. Whatever deficiencies I have in my faith, I can reason, and I was born into the tradition.

    I want my children to have that, which has been the source of some conflict. Due to her different treatment from her different church, she views the whole thing very differently than I do. We haven’t resolved the baptism issue. I feel like despite the above I am not a sufficient member of my church to bring her into the church alone. She doesn’t object to the baptism, precisely, but has a hard time fathoming participation.Report

  9. Avatar Murali says:

    I have conservative parents who are hurt by my libertarianism. My mom is a socialist while my dad is a conservative. Both prefer more state control over speech, association, private life and the economy than I think appropriate. Political discussions at home can become noisy and always end up with my parents telling me that they are worried about me.Report

  10. My mother is also a proud citizen of your parents’ land, albeit a different province. But the patriotism is the same.

    It is telling to me that I came out as gay exactly half my lifetime ago, and after a bumpy first year everything smoothed out quite nicely. But then, I still go to church regularly. That I am as much agnostic as I am Christian is not something I discuss, and I have made some doctrinal difference I have with the church of my upbringing clear… but still I attend church regularly, and that is all that seems to be required.

    Wow. I am so worried about accidentally outing the atheist in my family that I don’t even feel like I can complete this comment in anything but the most cryptic manner, in the incredibly unlikely circumstance that the wrong person reads it.

    I think that’s all I need to say, right there,Report

    • Avatar zic says:

      I did wonder if coming out as atheist has much in common as coming out gay or trans in many families, so I’m grateful for this comment and your admission of fears of outing atheists in the family.

      It greatly disturbs me that for so many people, it’s the seeming presence of belief that matters, not the actual belief. As long as people pretend. . .Report

      • Avatar Patrick says:

        The seeming presence can be interpreted as faux belief, or actual belief that covers up faux atheism that is covered by trappings.

        It is very easy to convince yourself that people really, deep down in their hearts, feel the way that you do. It’s all the easier when they accept the trappings of the belief.Report

      • Avatar zic says:

        @patrick, perhaps this is why ‘Thou shalt not lie’ is not one of the ten commandments; and it’s instead, ‘Thou shalt have not other Gods but me,’ at least in public.


    • Avatar Chris says:

      That definitely says a lot, and it makes me sad.

      I generally try to avoid analogizing the atheist experience to the gay experience, because let’s face it, it’s been a while since atheists were actively persecuted in our society, but in terms of familial relationships the effects of the two can be pretty similar, as can the fear of discovery.Report

  11. Avatar Tod Kelly says:

    Just reading this now, and my only question is: why is this in OTC, and not a Feature?Report

  12. Avatar Mad Rocket Scientist says:

    My parents changed religions so often (damn hippies…) that by the time I was old enough to even consider adopting a faith as my own, I had reached the conclusion that with so many faiths all claiming the One Universal Truth (TM) & insisting that all the rest are wrong, none of them could be right & I would be better off finding my own way.

    Some of my family is of the faithful, but none are so evangelical as to worry (out loud) for my blackened soul.Report

    • Avatar Kim says:

      This is better than acquiring worshippers and then spurning them.Report

    • Avatar Chris says:

      18 years ago, when my parents were still Catholic and I broke the news to them:
      — Can you still go to Church with us? Your brother looks up to you, and your not going may influence his decision about whether to go.

      Followed by years of silence.

      Now, when my parents are Act 29 Evangelicals:
      — You and your brother and your son are going to go to hell if you don’t come back to Jesus. We are going to have to have conversations about this as often as possible.

      Sometimes I really miss their Catholic days.Report

  13. @chris

    This is an excellent essay. Far too often I take umbrage at the “militant atheist critique of people who dare have a non-scientific religious belief” when I should remember that non-believers are often, and historically have more often, been treated to much worse behavior and contempt from believers.

    I have in the past technically identified as an agnostic. I realize there’s a sub-thread above where that identity is discussed in more depth, but I’ve so far only skimmed it. My own take is that for me at least, saying “I’m an agnostic” leaves unanswered more questions than it does answer. Maybe “apothatic” (sp.?….I can never seem to spell it right, and verifying the spelling on Google requires opening A WHOLE NEW TAB OR WINDOW, which is too much work me!) is a better descriptor of my beliefs. My point in mentioning the “agnostic” thing is that people seem (to me) to be less judgmental about it than if I identified as an atheist. That’s not a grand claim, just pure anecdote, filtered by whatever cognitive biases I bring to the table.Report

    • Avatar Chris says:

      Do you mean apophatic?

      You know, there are ways in which atheists are, as a group, treated differently: in politics, for example, but outside of personal relationships, particularly dating, I don’t see much discrimination, much less persecution. I mean, I don’t know anyone who’s ever lost a job, or been passed over for a promotion, or bean beaten up, for their atheism. And most of the atheists I know and have known over the years have lived (mostly) openly where I’ve lived, in the Bible Belt, where you’d expect anti-atheist behavior to be most prevalent. It’s in relationships of various kinds where being an atheist is really hard. I mean, I’ve had women dump me for it, which is not pleasant, and I have a few old friends who don’t really speak to me anymore because I’m unrepentantly one of THEM.Report

      • Yeah, I did mean apophatic.

        I’m not claiming that atheists are an oppressed class along the order of many other peoples. I’m just saying that in western history, it has generally been relatively safer to profess a belief in a religion, provided it be the official one or among the most widely accepted. And atheism usually hasn’t been on that list.Report

  14. Avatar Patrick says:

    Okay, time for a confessional.

    When I was two years out of college, I went freeclimbing up a big rock outside of Santa Barbara with a friend of mine, we were stupid. When I was high up enough that falling would have been likely very dead-inducing, I lost my balance and started to fall away from the wall.

    And I swear, it felt like somebody put a palm on the center of my back and pushed me back towards the rock face.

    Now, I knew then (and I know much better now) all about the funky stuff that the brain can do to trick itself. I don’t believe an actual angel reached down an saved my dumb ass, I believe that a psychomotor quirk, of me trying to regain my balance, equipped with my own relatively poor ability to gauge how out of balance I really was, combined with a sheer avalanche of endorphins, made the experience something that I can’t call a repeatable event. My sensory experience probably doesn’t match what happened which certainly doesn’t match my memories and thus hey, some people would have gone through that experience and called it a miracle. In the sense that it’s non-repeatable, it’s a miracle. In the sense that it was a legitimate paranormal experience, it’s probably not a miracle, because it’s probably not a legitimate paranormal experience.

    But having that experience? Yeah, I can see how someone who doesn’t know how the brain works would think it was a cap-M miracle.Report

    • @patrick

      I’m much more on board calling that a brain quirk than a cap M Miracle.

      But what I’d want to push you a bit on is your starting assumptions. You knew then and know now enough how the brain works to see how/why another might have come to that conclusion. But part of what you “knew,” it seems to me, was arguably predicated on the assumption that it couldn’t’ve been a cap M Miracle to begin with, that there definitely must be a “rational” (read physiological or physical or material) explanation. If there was not as ready of an explanation you had for it then, you might very well have had confidence that there would be and you just didn’t grasp it.

      I say arguably because there’s a lot I don’t know, including whether you yourself would have been susceptible to believing it be a cap M Miracle without such a ready (or ready-ish) explanation. Here I’m using “you” partially as the you-you, and partially as the universal you. All of which to say, a real cap M Miracle would possibly not convince someone who had already decided any such thing would have a rational explanation.

      I’m not accusing you of bad faith or circular reasoning. Or rather, there seems some circularity afoot someone here, at least potentially. More to the point, I am suggesting that if cap M Miracles do exist, then the receiver of/witness to it would have to already have a disposition toward seeing it.Report

      • Avatar Patrick says:

        More to the point, I am suggesting that if cap M Miracles do exist, then the receiver of/witness to it would have to already have a disposition toward seeing it.

        There’s no argument there.

        And you make a valid point about circular reasoning. I was predisposed not to believe in miracles when I was 20, and I’m considerably more predisposed against believing in miracles now (at least, the laws-of-physics-ignoring-type of miracles).

        I can’t say that this particular experience had a direct impact on that erosion or the original belief.

        All I’m saying is that the experience, itself, led me to understand how people can undergo a particular set of circumstances and come away with it with two entirely different understandings of the meaning of the event.

        So I can understand how some people believe in miracles, and I can understand how some people don’t believe in miracles. For the most part, I don’t believe that you can provide me with particularly compelling empirical evidence for cap-M miracles, but I recognize that’s a belief, in and of itself.Report

      • Avatar Burt Likko says:

        Or, someone like @patrick (or I, or likely a lot of people commenting in this thread) would have a disposition against seeing it. Can we be 100% sure it wasn’t an angel? I say, we can be vanishingly close to 100% sure, as in 99.99999999…% sure, but not quite all the way there.Report

      • Avatar Jaybird says:

        Can we be 100% sure it wasn’t an angel?

        The problem, it seems to me, is that we get to say “So What?” even if it was.

        So let’s say that it was an angel. So what?

        Does that mean that Jesus was such-and-such?
        If so, does that mean that Joseph Smith was such-and-such?

        What religious meaning should we take from the hand on Patrick’s back? (A hand, let me assure you, I am thanking Atheist God for right now.)

        I’m guessing that it means that I was wrong about Monism and need to go back to Dualism. But where do I go from there? This is a serious question.Report

      • Avatar Murali says:

        I don’t think you have to be dualist just because an Angel shows up to save Patrick. Hinduism manages to have the whole reincarnation thing and the monism thing going on at the same time.Report

      • Avatar Fnord says:

        Angel? Wizard with levitation spell and cloak of invisibility? A good Samaritan from the future with a combination time machine/hover bike? We can’t get all the way to 100% certain on ANY of those.

        I don’t say this to compare religious belief as a whole to those; merely in the context of this specific experience. But, for this specific event, things like “part of what you ‘knew,’ it seems to me, was arguably predicated on the assumption that it couldn’t’ve been a cap M Miracle to begin with” apply to the wizard and time traveler explanation just as much as the angel explanation. The Christian religious explanation comes to mind easily because Christianity is salient in our culture, not because it’s necessarily a good explanation.Report

      • @fnord

        But, for this specific event, things like “part of what you ‘knew,’ it seems to me, was arguably predicated on the assumption that it couldn’t’ve been a cap M Miracle to begin with” apply to the wizard and time traveler explanation just as much as the angel explanation.

        That’s fair.

        However, if time travel is possible (I’ve heard it’s not, but I don’t know) and if the invisible cloak is invisible not because magic!, but because of some good, old fashioned scientific reason (some star trek style cloaking device, made up of whatever combination of molecules and antimatter Scottie and Spock can dream up in the lab), then those things, if they did save Patrick, would not be capital M Miracles, just strangely and fortuitously good events on the order of Spiderman’s “everybody gets one.”. [probably safe for work, but it is Family Guy]Report

      • @jaybird

        If I understand C. S. Lewis aright, according to him, the only miracle a “mere” Christian has to believe in, in order to be called a mere Christian, is the incarnation + resurrection. Even then, it seems to me, that miracle requires certain assumptions about the nature of the incarnated + resurrected and the nature of the god of which he would have been the incarnation.

        In other words, I pretty much agree with you. If it was an angel or other miraculous entity, it’s hard to know the takeaway.Report

    • Avatar Chris says:

      I sometimes wonder whether our conception of miracle is really in line with lay theists’ conception, or at least with the theological conception among monotheists. I’ve only had one true “near death’ experience: I was tubing in white water that was way too rough for tubing, and got turned sideways in some rapids. When I reached a drop-off, because I was sideways the tube just dumped me in the water, and I went straight down to the bottom, about 12 feet under water. There was a large rock behind me, and one in front of me, and the pressure of the water coming down from the one behind me pinned me. I had that, “Well, this is it moment,” became completely calm, and then the water shoved me against the rock in front of me, at which point the churning of the water (down on the back rock, up on the front) shot me out of the water (almost my entire body came out).

      I was probably only down there for a few seconds, and it was probably my going completely limp and not struggling that allowed the water to push me forward, but what if it hadn’t? Or what if I hadn’t become as calm as I did at the moment I did? All of those things admit physical explanations, of course, but they are facts of the matter that occurred within a space of possible facts of the matter, and to the exclusion of others, so why did those exact ones occur? Not how, but why? Maybe there is no “why,” and that’s what I believe ultimately, but I’m pretty sure where the more sophisticated conceptions of miracles occur are in the “why,” not necessarily the “how.” That is, the divine intervention is in the selection of the actual mechanisms from a space of possible mechanisms, not in completely circumventing the mechanisms altogether. This is not to say that, in the Bible and folklore there aren’t reports of miracles that defy the laws of nature, but I think those are generally thought of as exceptions.

      Of course, once we start dealing with why’s instead of how’s, explanation and verification, at least in the sense of the application of knowledge from the general to the particular, and inferences about repeatability, become difficult, but that’s because we’ve stepped outside of the realm of statistical or scientific reasoning, and into another realm of reason. This, I should note, is usually where other atheists, particularly of the more recent breeds, start to look at me askance.Report

      • Avatar Glyph says:

        I won’t type it out here b/c I’m on a virtual keyboard and it’s a PITA, but I had what could easily have been a fatal skiing accident, and I had that same bemused “Well, this is it, you’ve just killed yourself, Glyph; I guess THIS is how you die” moment.

        I wonder how common that thought is. They talk about how drunks sometimes improbably survive car accidents with far less injury than you’d expect, and I seem to recall that one theory as to why, was just that they were so “loose” that they don’t tense up at the moment of impact.

        I wonder if that “stop struggling and accept it” impulse, is itself a survival mechanism.Report

      • Avatar Stillwater says:

        I like that comment. I used to talk to a lot of new-age types who thought the world was comprised of a bunch of stuff which existed outside of the world (or the material world, or etcIdon’treallyknowwhattheymeant – astral-planing was one such bit of esoterica) but which nonetheless had causal properties and such. This thought was a bit baffling to me since the world is, as we learned oh so long ago, everything that is the case, and if there actually were these types of objects or properties then by definition they are part of the world. Whether science could measure them seems to me a different proposition, however, and the breakdown between the measurable and the real strikes me as an entirely reasonable hypothesis. That is, there is more to the story than our current science can account for and insofar as we’re ontologically committed to those types of things (qualia, observer dependence) then science will expand to include the previously excluded.

        Given all that, I say Patrick was touched by an Angel and I’m sticking too it.Report

      • Avatar Jam3z Aitch says:

        I’ve twice had that “so this is how I die” experience, and both times I became quite calm. Is there an explanation for that reaction?Report

      • Avatar zic says:

        That calmness would be, I think, a survival skill. If you panicked when you were beginning to have that ‘this is it’ feeling, it greatly increases the probability that yes, indeed, this is it. While I don’t like to suggest that many human behaviors are selected, this may well be one that has been.Report

      • My sister had a similar experience, not very long ago (say, a few years ago), she, her partner, and some friends were hiking and something really bad happened. Either she got injured or very sick or something (I don’t know all the details), and they were in the middle of nowhere. Eventually they got her out, but she has since said that she thought that might have been her time to go, and any time since then is something like a gift that she can enjoy.

        I guess it’s not exactly the same thing as Chris and the others here are describing. She doesn’t seem to believe it a miracle, I should say. I don’t want to really speak for her, but she and her partner are kind of what I’d call “spiritists.” They seem to believe that it’s possible to communicate with the dead or that other spirits are around and sometimes help and sometimes are mischievous. (I say “kind of” because their belief seems to border on the limit between “it’s something fun to consider and talk about and it’s good entertainment to do psychic readings once in a blue moon as long as it’s not really expensive” and “there’s something to it all, but we’re not prepared to say what.”)

        I’m not a believer in that, but I should confess that I don’t disbelieve it either. I’m certainly not going to judge them for believing. I love both of them dearly, and as much as I’m aware that this is one area where confirmation bias and other biases thrive, I’m not entirely ready to discount it altogether.Report

      • Avatar J@m3z Aitch says:


        Perhaps so. There’s good reason to believe that one of those times my survival chances would have diminished considerably had I not experienced a sudden calm and clarity of thought. Odd, too, how time too slow down. It was really quite an amazing experience, and I’d love to have that feeling again…absent the high probability of death, though.Report

      • Avatar zic says:

        @jam3z-aitch, the day my first child was born, we watched the Celtics play. Larry Bird won it with a 3-pointer on the buzzer. In the interview after, it was obvious that he was aware of the passage of hundredths, if not thousandths, of a second, and I remembered wondering what that would be like.

        Later, about 3:30 in the morning and in transition, my partner had dozed off, and I was determined to let him sleep for 20 minutes. I discovered exactly what that means. Time slows down.

        I had one other child, and was told no more after. I hated being pregnant, pain-filled experience that accelerated damage already done to my spine. But I loved giving birth, and that awareness of time, and I would, if I could, have labored many times over in this life.

        This is another aspect of magical thinking — our wonder at the clarity in moments of great stress.Report

      • Avatar Mike Schilling says:

        Odd, too, how time too slow down. It was really quite an amazing experience, and I’d love to have that feeling again

        Don’t you go to faculty meetings?Report

      • Avatar J@m3z Aitch says:

        Heh, unfortunately there’s a critical difference between time crawling and time slowing down, or I’d be a happier man.Report

      • Avatar zic says:

        When my children were three and five, I had a dream one night that I was pregnant; just found out a few weeks ago. Now I’d been told to have no more. But I had this dream. I woke up from it cradling my stomach, did so through the day. I was very happy; didn’t even think about it as something novel; it had been novel a few weeks, and now just was.

        It was noon, I was making lunch, when I remembered, no. This is not possible. I wasn’t pregnant, only dream drunk. But it had seemed so real I did not question it until I remembered the surgery he’d had two years before.

        I’ve often wondered since, how often we have such subtle dreams that we’re convinced are real; dreams without the surreal dreamscape, so that we have nothing to rope it to dream. How often we never, ever question it.Report

    • Avatar zic says:

      I’ve had numbers of experiences that would, times past, have gotten me burned at the stake. There was a horn player around here of some fame, my sweetie was so excited when he showed up. Invited him out to our camp for dinner. And the whole time, I was completely freaked out; every time I looked at him, he had the dark cloud around him, it was painful for me. After he left, I made my husband call his girlfriend (who was across the country), and tell her this man needed a doctor like yesterday. She said she’d talked to him that morning, he was fine; wanted to know what medical training I had (none) etc.

      Six weeks later, she called to tell us he’d died of kidney cancer.

      This is not the first time this has happened to me, though the most extreme. But I don’t believe it’s anything but my being sensitive to things; perhaps to movement that shows discomfort of an off smell, I’m never sure what, but I’m always sure when I see it, and it typically strikes me as someone’s color (I might say aura, but I don’t really understand what that means) being wrong; sometimes black, sometimes jaundiced yellow.

      There’s a stretch of road here, a flight-highland marsh, that for years, caused me a horrible sense of panic. Then one night, we were coming home late from a gig, and we got to that stretch of road. I do not think I could see anything, but I just knew, and screamed at my husband to stop. He did. And there were two deer in the road; sideways, no white tails, no eye flash, just a few feet from where the car stopped. Funny thing is that ever since, the panic there has vanished. I just drove through a few minutes ago, and tasted for it, but it was gone, as it has been since that night.

      These time warps are harder for me to explain; I do not understand them. A yanking I felt toward a certain house on a street, where later, a good friend moved. A sense that a campground wasn’t a good place to spend the night in the Cascade mountains, that flooded the next day. Little things, mostly. Yet the people who know me well take them very seriously, which probably frightens me more then the little knowings.

      My grandmother called this the sight; she was like this too. But I do not think it divine (or evil,) and guess it’s probably just something that happens from being the sort of person who notices lots of detail, making sense of events afterward to explain being aware of probabilities and coincidence.Report

      • @zic

        That is something I either believe in, or at least am very open to believing. And like you, I don’t necessarily attribute it to the divine or supernatural. I think we all, or most of us, have something like that, to varying degrees, although you seem to have it a lot more acutely.

        Also, to refer back to your comment that in certain times, you “sight” would have made you a candidate for burning at the stake, there’s a book about the Salem trials–I believe it’s Boyer and Nissenbaum’s “Salem Possessed,” but I’m not entirely sure–that advances an interesting (to me) insight. Most of the book is based on the economic argument about class differences in the town (and regrettably, it doesn’t focus as much on the misogyny that also informed anti-witch hysteria), but somewhere (probably in the conclusion or epilogue), they suggest that behavior which in the 1690s would have made one a target of witchcraft accusations would, in the 1740s, have made them exemplars of the religious revivalism going on in the American colonies.Report

      • Avatar zic says:

        @pierre-corneille I suspect part of the hysteria in Salem (and in the dark ages) was due, in part, to people tripping from eating grains that had fermented; unknown experiments in biochemistry.

        Which suggests that there’s multiple things going on; on the one hand, people take in information and process it, so seem to ‘know’ things in some magical way; on the other, people have their brain chemistry altered in ways that their grasp of reality shifts. The two combined certainly seems a lethal combination when fundamentalism takes hold of a social group.Report

      • @zic

        Pretty much agreed, especially with your last paragraph. I’ve heard about ergot and other things that may have caused hallucinations, but I don’t know much about them.Report

  15. Avatar Kazzy says:

    Great essay, Chris. My faith — or lack there of — is a tricky thing to describe. If pressed, I describe myself as atheist. Like you, I was native born into a faith — Roman Catholic, in my case. I don’t know that I ever really accepted it. As a child, I believe it, but that was because of what I was told. As I grew older, the only time I really remember calling upon my faith was when my mom and stepdad would fight… but an 11-year-old will turn to just about anything when he thinks his parents are going to kill each other (thankfully, things never got physical, but hearing them argue just terrified me for some reason). There was a brief period in college where I looked at the apparent organization and intentionality in the world and thought there must be some sort of higher being… “This couldn’t have all happened by accident or chance,” I thought. But this was largely a misunderstanding of how the things that are came to be and some desire for things to “make sense”.

    Ultimately, I emigrated away from my native-born faith. But I don’t know that I ever formally or officially immigrated to somewhere. I don’t believe in any higher powers or Gods or anything of the sort, but I don’t actively believe in a lack of all that, if that makes any sense.

    This has led to certain tensions with my family, though nothing as strong as you describe. We weren’t raised particularly faithfully… things were more about traditions and cultures than they were about faith and spirituality. My mom became more faithful later in life and a bit of revisionist history on her part sometimes leads to arguments about how we were raised. When I fell in love with a woman who was raised Protestant and Jewish — without particularly strong ties to either — and we opted to have a secular wedding ceremony, this did not go over well. When we decided not to baptize our son, we were quasi-jokingly told she would baptize him on her own (which, thankfully, she has not… yet). When Christmas rolled around and we decided we were comfortable sharing the secular traditions with Mayo (e.g., Santa, spirit of giving, family, food) but not the religious traditions (e.g., baby Jesus, the nativity), this was met with some unease. What complicates the matter is that our view on faith or non-faith is one of ambivalence or indifference. So I can’t argue strenuously on behalf of atheism as much as I can say, “We just don’t believe any of that and see no reason to instill such beliefs in him.”

    Anyway, thanks for sharing. Very good food for thought.Report

    • Avatar Chris says:

      Hey Kazzy, thank you for the comment. I’m glad the transition has gone relatively smoothly for you, family-wise.

      I was actually wondering how you and Zazzy would approach religion with Mayo, given your knowledge of early childhood education, and more importantly, little child minds. When my son was younger, I mostly took a, “If he asks questions, I’ll try to answer them in ways that promote his thinking more about this stuff” approach to religion with him, but as he’s gotten older, it’s actually become more of a challenge, because he’s smarter and thinks more independently. But sometimes I wonder if there were things I could have done better when he was small.Report

      • Avatar Kazzy says:

        I can’t say that I have any formal understanding of the interaction between developing minds and faith/religion. I am sure there is research on the topic, but it has never made its way to my eyes. Giving it only the thought I’ve afford it over the last few minutes, I would say that faith — as I understand the term vis a vis religion — might be impossible for a child to have. Faith requires an acceptance of the seemingly unacceptable. How did a man die, lay entombed for three days, and walk the Earth again? Because God. That’s all you need. I know it’s more complicated than that but, in some ways, it isn’t. Or doesn’t appear to be to this atheist. That isn’t meant as an insult, mind you. As I understand faith it means you accept the explanation even if it might make sense because you have faith in something larger wherein it would make sense. I see this as somewhat incompatible with the young child’s developing mind because they aren’t constrained by the same understanding of a universe. A man dying, laying entombed for three days, and walking the Earth doesn’t require God because, well, anything is possible to a four-year-old. They might say God did it, but they aren’t so much displaying faith as they are parroting what they’ve been told. Kids can have faith in other ways (e.g., trust) but I don’t know about the religious way. BUT, that’s pure conjecture I just pulled out of my ass.

        As for Mayo… well, I see religion as a way of making sense of and understanding the world. Holding my son in my arms actually helped me see the allure of it, in a strange way. I believe I previously told the story about holding Mayo and narrating his actions to him. He sneezed, at which time I said, “And do you know why people sneeze. Well, they sneeze because… [pause] [gulp] [realize I don’t really know the mechanics of sneezing]… they sneeze because ghosts want to get out of their head.” BAM! Religion. I couldn’t explain it so I made up an explanation.

        As far as I’m concerned, the scientific method is sufficient to explain the world. And where it may lack a concrete explanation, I am confident it will one day find one. Is this a form of faith? Sure. But I put value in the fact that it is verifiable. And I will seek to instill this in him. He will surely answer questions to which I don’t know the answer to. And maybe we, as humans, don’t know the answer. And I think it is okay to say that. “I don’t know. We don’t know.” I don’t like the idea that every question has a ready answer. Some things aren’t known and, maybe, won’t or can’t be known. Not in a way that is understandable. So be it. It is more important to me that he knows how to ask questions and seek out answers and understanding than that he have every answer or a specific point of reference from which to derive every answer. Should he opt for a religious system to help him gain a better understanding of the world, well, so be it. I strayed from my family and provided he isn’t putting himself at real risk (e.g., a cult), I hope that I can respect his wishes.

        I sometimes have my students ask me to settle religious disputes. My stock response tends to be, “Well, what do you think? [wait for response] That sounds like a pretty good answer.” Repeat with the other kid. If they want one true answer (and sometimes they will… kids can be very black-and-white), I simply tell them, “We don’t really know. What’s great is that means you can decide for yourself what you think is true.” This can be unsatisfying but, well, that’s life.Report

      • Avatar Kim says:

        Christian faith seems on the surface to be pretty silly — I agree.
        But there are some religions out there that don’t require such,
        to be a congregant.Report

  16. Avatar William says:

    When those who tell you that they’re hurt, by which I mean to capture all of the synonyms and like terms (e.g.: offended, upset,…), what exactly do these people mean? What are they referring to specifically?

    Basically, it seems to me that those who fail to appreciate your choice(s) are indulging in thinly-veiled, though muddled, emotional blackmail. Maybe their confused emotionalism is a “tell” hinting at their own (semi-)conscious awareness that the thing they call their “faith” is vapid wish-fulfillment that requires the complicity of others – willing or unwilling – less it collapse under its own (feather) weight.Report

    • Avatar Chris says:

      I think that’s pretty uncharitable, when a straightforward interpretation of their emotions might suggest that their hurt and at times anger are more directly related to the content of their faith and the social functions of religion. That is, I have no doubt that my parents actually worry for my immortal soul, because they genuinely believe that its salvation is contingent on a particular set of beliefs, and I have no doubt that they are also dismayed at me falling outside of what they see as a failure to adhere to what they see as they very reason for their community.Report

      • Avatar William says:

        Uncharitable? Maybe, but…

        I still don’t understand the emotional component of your parents and others emotional responses beyond pure intemperate emotionalism. The essential function of parenting is to bring a human being who after reaching an age and state of psychological maturity becomes an independent, free-thinking, autonomous, self-responsible adult. As such, adults disagree on a multitude of topics, choices, preferences, … – a point which I suspect you readily grasp.

        I’m inclined to make a comparison between christians’ habit of offering a mantra along the lines of “I’ll pray for your soul” or other such claptrap when told they’re in the company of a non-believer. It is nothing less than a happy-talk veneer that fails to cover-over the pity and dis-ease that the christian feels at these encounters.

        Would those you are referring to flinch were you to ask, if not insist, that they cease their practice of praying for the soul you don’t have and take-up a more productive activity? Were any (or all) of them to refuse, would you respond with understanding or guilt-projecting emotionalism?Report

    • Avatar Ray Butlers says:

      It’s abuse and you should make clear that you will tolerate none of it. If you must, leave and don’t come back.Report

      • Avatar Chris says:

        That’s rather harsh. Is it abuse merely because their worries are religious-based? I don’t think that makes them less genuine, and it’s not as though they are berating me with it. The conversations are uncomfortable, and inevitable, but they’re not treating me as a bad person or anything. They’re just worried, and they act like worried parents tend to. I don’t find this consistent with any definition of abuse.

        Granted, I don’t think they respect my beliefs to the extent that they expect me to respect theirs, but I think that’s in large part because they don’t understand them, or their implications, since they don’t know many (perhaps any) other atheists.Report

  17. Avatar Agape says:

    I had the opposite experience, being raised by atheists and converting to Catholicism in adulthood. It’s not easy going my direction, either.Report

    • Avatar Chris says:

      @agape that’s really interesting. I’d be interested in hearing about how that played out.Report

      • Avatar Agape says:

        Supposedly, something like 40% of the children of atheists end up converting to a religion. I have no idea how accurate that is, I just know that of my father’s five children, the two he had with his first wife (who were baptized Catholic) ended up atheists; the three he had with his second wife (who were raised in a household where religion in general, and Catholicism in particular, were mocked on a nightly basis by one or both parents) ended up religious- although all three of us have chosen different variations of Christianity.

        How does it play out now that I’m Catholic? I get chewed out for making the sign of the cross when I go by a church. I’m actively discouraged from attending Mass on Sunday. I’m asked if I don’t secretly think that doctrines x, y, and z are stupid, or that Christianity is a bunch of lies, or that only gullible idiots embrace the beliefs that I’ve embraced in adulthood.

        They basically act like intolerant, anti-religious bigots every chance they get. So, I see very little of them, and when I do see them I prefer to discuss family, pets, and the weather.

        It’s hard to generalize from my anecdotal experience. But I do think that growing up in a household where religion was attacked on a routine basis made religion seem much more appealing once I reached an age where I could actively explore it as a topic for myself.Report

      • Avatar Burt Likko says:

        I’m a shade appalled by this. But then I’m appalled by bigotry of all sorts. Atheism is not anti-theism, but of course if you didn’t understand that at some level you wouldn’t be bothering to read this post.

        If you don’t mind a bit of a personal question, @agape , did you otherwise get along with your mom and dad? (I assume from the context that your mom was your father’s second wife.) This does not necessarily imply that your attraction to Catholicism is particularly an act of rebellion, although neither do I wish to exclude this.

        And to the point of the OP — do you feel badly that you have found a different path than the one your parents are on and that this causes them some measure of distress, however it winds up being expressed?Report

      • Avatar Chris says:

        @agape ,

        I get chewed out for making the sign of the cross when I go by a church. I’m actively discouraged from attending Mass on Sunday. I’m asked if I don’t secretly think that doctrines x, y, and z are stupid, or that Christianity is a bunch of lies, or that only gullible idiots embrace the beliefs that I’ve embraced in adulthood.

        They basically act like intolerant, anti-religious bigots every chance they get. So, I see very little of them, and when I do see them I prefer to discuss family, pets, and the weather.

        That is rather depressing, particularly the insulting of your beliefs. Among the atheists I’ve known in my life, that’s only become acceptable in the last 10 years. Before that, vigorous debate maybe, but never insults, at least not among self-respecting, intelligent atheists, and definitely not with family. It sounds like your family’s been this way for a while, though. I’m sorry to hear that you have to go through that. Like Burt, I wonder how close you were to your family prior to your conversion.Report

    • Avatar Susara says:

      As a non-native atheist myself I find it totally unacceptable for atheist parents not to accept their childrens’ choice of religion. As atheists we have no vested interest, in principle, in our children believing like us, unlike for the religious that believe in the eternal damnation of unbelievers.

      To me it is extremely important that my children make a free and informed choice as to what they believe. If they believe the balance of evidence points to the existence of a god, or some specific flavour of a god, then so be it.

      In the very Christian-dominated community that I live in, I know my children will grow up nominally Christian – *all* the kindergartens in our area pray before eating and mention God and Jesus as loving them etc. Am I going to come down hard on a 5 YO child because he believes Jesus loves him? If I do I am going to have a fundamentalist Christian rebel on my hands at age 14.Report

  18. Avatar Stillwater says:

    Whoa. Chris, you need to check out The Dish.Report

  19. Avatar DRS says:

    The Dish link:

    Okay, guys, wear your ties while posting. Andrew Sullivan is watching. (The chicks always look good, so no warnings needed there.)Report

  20. Avatar CMH says:

    I’m with you on the parents. Mine are just the same. Not sure how to deal with “end of life” situations as they age.

    I do take issue with your “wrong kind of atheists” zinger you dropped at the end. Don’t shoot the messenger that natural selection presented us with.Report

  21. Avatar Tracieh says:

    It”s about appearances, not whether or not the atheist really believes. You can’t guilt or force a person to believe a proposition. And such attempts are clearly destined for fail, which means that I have to ask “what is the ACTUAL goal?” And the goal is clear: It’s passive-aggressive communication designed to make the target individual feel badly about not being who/what you wished they were, and coerce conformity with desired behaviors (even if the motives aren’t part and parcel). For a parent to abuse their station in this way is as wrong as wrong can be. It’s codependent to try and emotionally manipulate people that way, and far too easy to do it to your children, who are born to want to gain your approval as their care-givers in this world. It demonstrates you don’t really care about the happiness of the individual you’re hurting, nor the happiness of the relationship between you and them. You only care about getting what you want, even if it can only really be a pretense–of the target individual conforming to behaviors that feign they are what you want them to be. In essence: “If you can’t be what I want, then at least love me enough to fake it for me whenever I’m around. I don’t care if it’s actually true. We can just pretend you’re not who you are, and then I can go on with my life as though you’re not who you are, and are, instead, someone I can accept.”Report

    • Avatar Jaybird says:

      It demonstrates you don’t really care about the happiness of the individual you’re hurting, nor the happiness of the relationship between you and them.

      There’s a lot more to existence than happiness. As easy as it would be for me to believe that my mother is a shallow woman horrified at the thought of what her peers might think if they found that I, gasp, don’t believe in that supernatural mumbo-jumbo, I’ve thought about it and I’ve come to the conclusion that she honestly believes in that version of the afterlife that includes an outer darkness where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth and she doesn’t want me going there.

      She bugs me about my atheism because she cares about my long-term (that is: eternal) happiness and is willing to bug me despite the fact that it creates tension between us.

      That’s evidence for how much she loves me, not evidence for how much she doesn’t.Report

  22. Avatar RUsty says:

    Awesome post. Long story short, I can relate.

    I do take exception to this, however:

    Perhaps if everyone knew going in that atheist guilt exists, and that it can be personally painful and interpersonally damaging, theists would be more sensitive from the start, attenuating if not eliminating the painful cycle.

    This strikes me as wishful thinking, because the theist assumes they understand whence that guilt arises; turning away from God. An acknowledgment of the guilt you feel can only make matters worse, as it make the restoration of faith (i.e., elimination of guilt) an even more pressing matter.

    And in any case, the guilt you feel is your burden, not theirs.Report