Coming out to Dad
My dad had long been skeptical of religion but had made sincere attempts to study and believe in Christianity for my mother’s sake, even going so far as to get baptized. But eventually it was clear he simply didn’t believe. He had never for a moment tried to dissuade me from my fervent beliefs but supported me in whatever I wanted to do. I could tell by his lack of overt expressions of enthusiasm for my beliefs that he was biting his tongue and implicitly placating me but he never came right out and challenged my thinking. On the phone I would ramble on effusing about something important to me from a Christian perspective and when I would stop for a response, he would offer only an obviously polite, halfheartedly and indifferently “mhmm” which was equivalent to a patronizing “that’s nice”. The most active way he had sought to undermine my commitment to Christianity was by steering me towards taking more philosophy than theology courses when I entered college. He strongly encouraged me for my first semester of college to take whichever philosophy classes I could that would count towards the Christian Thought degree that I was initially thinking of pursuing.
When I told him I was an agnostic (which was how I first identified upon deconverting), he asked me “what’s that?” and when I explained he said, “I guess I’m an agnostic too.” So that was pretty easy.
My dad has always been prone towards cynicism about all people and institutions (and about life in general, really). Whenever I talk to him, he relays to me a litany of corruptions going on in the world. He is one of the truly bipartisan critics I know politically. His views range all over the map as he takes issues one by one and changes his mind with very little fear of inconsistency. He’s very non-ideological that way. Very unwedded to a political worldview. Completely indifferent to the fates of either major policial party. He is primarily tuned in simply to all their corruption and will never be heard rationalizing any of it away out of some fear that some larger political cause might suffer if he doesn’t.
So, quite naturally, Dad and I will share in some frank observations about the corruptions of religious people, religious institutions, religious ideas, and religious politics. But also should I ever sound just a little too partisan, zealous, or closed minded in my atheism or if I tell him about such atheists or he observes them, then anti-theism/anti-religiousness itself will get on his cynical, contrarian radar for a hearty dismissal. He is, quite charmingly to me, consistent that way. While I am more optimistic, idealistic, constructive, and humanistic, where he is more misanthropic and pessimistic, I always benefit from his splashes of cold water, admire his unflinching eye for the ugly side of life, and ultimately share his willingness to be an equal opportunity critic–even if I don’t always have quite his knack for it. I wrote more about my dad, in case you’re interested, here and more about a couple formative experiences in his disillusionment with the church in the beginning of this post.
Coming out to my minister brother
I waited the longest to confront my conservative minister brother whom I had looked up to as a role model previously. He found out through my mom that I no longer was a Christian but we never discussed the subject for over a year. I first talked to him about my deconversion indirectly in the form of an e-mail which I sent not only to him but also to a number of other trusted family, friends, and advisers. The e-mail was sent the beginning of my second semester of graduate school. It was January, shortly after my birthday. I was dealing with a seriously discouraging first semester of grad school, my still fairly fresh deconversion, and several obsessive viewings of Fight Club that all conspired to give me an existential crisis. I sought this array of advisers’ advice on whether I should drop out. I had doubts about whether by staying in graduate school I was prematurely giving up on another dream career path that I had always wondered about–filmmaking. In my e-mail the topic of my deconversion was referenced only within that larger context. But with the subject broached, my brother and I agreed to talk face to face about it and we took the opportunity do so when he was in town just a few weeks later for our grandmother’s funeral. It did not really go well.
I started by trying to lay out concisely but methodically and systematically my entire philosophical reasoning process that had led me to my disbelief. But within no more than ten minutes (maybe even less) he interrupted, started seizing on phrases I used and, showing no understanding or will to understanding of what I was saying, he launched into trite old Christian clichés. I was disillusioned and insulted that he thought me so ignorant that these platitudes were supposed to be new to me and that he had no interest whatsoever in learning any of the sophistication and detail of my thought process that could not be so easily just waved away. So soon voices were raised in frustration, his 10 month old baby was crying, and I was blamed. We have only directly debated the truth and falsity of Christianity several more times in the last ten years and it always ends quickly and badly, with an ugly scene that the family invariably blames me for.
I talk some more about my brother’s initial conversion to Christianity and subsequent influence upon me growing up in this post.
Coming out to Mom
After I came out to my mom she spent years in denial of the reality of my disbelief. Even years afterwards she would still make predictions for my life like, “Someday you’ll find a nice Christian girl”, completely ignoring the fact of my atheism. Only after 6 or 7 years did I start to really have talks where I really impressed it on her that this wasn’t a phase or a “period of doubt” and insist she acknowledge and respect my atheism and its consequences. Very rarely will we debate the issues as she hates the conflict that comes with argument about ideas. Our few constructive discussions of the topic have come when we have already been talking openly and happily about broader issues in our lives. In that context, being honest about these issues has been less tense. Our best conversation happened in the swimming pool even. Talking about life in the soothing water, made it easier to relax and discuss God. In that conversation I dialectically guided her through my worldview and she was very receptive, before she just fell back on Pascal’s Wager, citing the bleakness of death without hope for an afterlife.
Outside of God related issues we have a wonderful relationship. No one loves or supports me as much as she does. At my dissertation defense arguably my most antagonistic critic was the one who challenged my entire project from what amounted to a standpoint of either Christian presuppositionalism or Reformed (Calvinistic) epistemology more generally. My mom was so tense and defensive of me that afterwards she spent the rest of the afternoon complaining about precisely that professor who was most distinctly Christian in his criticisms of my work. Ultimately, in this way, she supports me, even where that involves some overlap with supporting my atheism. When I share with her good news about opportunities or successes that I have related to my work defending atheism she will express her sincere pride in me and then without fail make note that she wishes what I was doing wasn’t related to atheism.
She often talks about my atheism as though it is some sort of bewildering betrayal claiming she raised me “to know God”. I was a very planned baby. My parents tried for a long time to conceive and endured a miscarriage before I was born. My mom would always tell a personal story that is reminiscent of the story of the prophet Samuel’s mother Hannah in 1 Samuel Chapter 1. My mom describes reaching the point of praying in the shower to God for a child and promising that if He gave her one she would make sure that that child knew Him. This was before she was even devoutly religious–and it still took a good five years after I was born for my brother to convert to evangelicalism and for my mom only then to actually become seriously religious herself and start taking me to church in earnest, but nevertheless… my becoming an atheist when God had only created me because she had commissioned my life to him in advance, is, to this day, apparently rather perplexing to her theologically.
For much more about my mom and what makes her an amazing human being, role model to me, and mother, see this post. More about my family and their impact on my religiosity when I was a child is this post on my Christian childhood.
Before becoming an atheist I was a devout Evangelical Christian. I am slowly telling the story of my former life as a believer, how I came to deconvert and become an atheist, what it all meant and where I went from there personally and intellectually. Below are links to all the pieces I have written so far. While they all contribute to an overall narrative, each installment is self-contained and can valuably be read on its own without the others. So feel free to read starting anywhere, according to your interest.
Before I Deconverted:
How I Deconverted:
When I Deconverted:
The Philosophical Key To My Deconversion:
After I Deconverted: