Heartbroken Atheist Mama

I’m taking an early Spring Break this week and will be running a guest blogger series featuring some of my favorite writers. Today meet author and speaker Margot Starbuck.

After enjoying Amy Julia Becker’s blog at Patheos last week, I wandered out of the safety and comfort of the “evangelical” zone and landed at The Friendly Atheist. (He really is very friendly.)  Because my book that released this week is called Permission Granted: Learning to Live Graciously Among Sinners and Saints, (yes, shameless plug, but entirely relevant) I’ve been noodling on the ways that Christians so often engage with others we’ve identified as “Sinners.”  (Think: Hateful placards at military and gay funerals.  Then put it out of your mind. Really…stop thinking about it. Now. Nothing good comes from thinking about it.)

Imagine my delight to find a letter, there, from a heartbroken atheist mama. No, no, not delighted for the heartbreak. But WILDLY intrigued by the content of her angst.  You see, her college-aged daughter has been attending church.  Atheist Mama says it’s “one of the better churches”—young, hip, liberal—but she’s still really unglued about her daughter.  Basically, her letter to the Friendly Atheist could have been written by a conservative Christian mom. She writes, in part…

“Where did I go wrong? How could she believe such nonsense? How can I help her see the light? How do I accept her when I reject her views on religion?…My husband…thinks she needs to make up her own mind about what she believes…I listened to some podcasts of other services and I’m very troubled by what I heard…I’m worried that if I push too hard it will damage our relationships and I’m still not sure if I’m just worrying over nothing…Should I just get over it and be thankful that she’s not binge drinking, failing her classes and sleeping around?”

Delicious, right?

This is how we are.  When others’ behaviors, or beliefs, don’t match ours, we don’t quite know how to navigate the relationship. Though we may not be the hateful sign-waving sort, we still often feel an obligation to make it crystal clear that we do not condone another’s behavior or beliefs. We’re concerned about what folks would think of us if we did. (Either the left-wing atheist catching Athetist Mama at hipster church or the conservative right-winger finding a church member at a local Pagan festival!) In his fabulicious book Exclusion and Embrace, Miroslav Volf identifies our three tendencies, in relation to those who are “other”: to assimilate, to eliminate or to abandon.

When Atheist Mama announces, “I will draw the line if her beliefs become hateful or supernatural,” she’s saying that she’ll draw a line which separates her from her daughter. The Christian version of “elimination” or “abandonment” is the parent who kicks out the teenage daughter who comes home pregnant or the son who’s gay. This impulse to assimilate—electroshock the gay son until he’s straight—and eliminate—kick the wayward child out of the house—and abandon—cutting off relationship—is how we are.

I was quite taken by portions of The Friendly Atheist’s response to the desperate mother. He reminds her that her daughter is not her views on religion or her clothes or her politics or her taste in music.  “She is,” he affirms, “what receives the love you give.” He insists that she is worthy of love.

So we agree.

Both the fundamentalist Christian and the vehement atheist need to learn how to navigate this encounter with those who are “other.”  For some of us the “other” will be the transsexual uncle and for others of us it will be the disciple of Rush Limbaugh. For some it will be the war-loving Army general neighbor and for others it will be the groovy granola hipster one.

I do know that those of us who claim to pattern our lives after the person of Jesus are invited to practice a radical acceptance which offends good sensibilities.

Maybe even our own.

Margot Starbuck is a communicator who is giddy this week about the release of Permission Granted: Learning to Live Graciously Among Sinners and Saints.  In her mind, she likes to think it’s Exclusion and Embrace for Dummies.  Connect at www.MargotStarbuck.com or www.facebook.com/Margot .

About Christian Piatt

Christian Piatt is the creator and editor of BANNED QUESTIONS ABOUT THE BIBLE and BANNED QUESTIONS ABOUT JESUS. He co-created and co-edits the “WTF: Where’s the Faith?” young adult series with Chalice Press, and he has a memoir on faith, family and parenting being published in early 2012 called PREGMANCY: A Dad, a Little Dude and a Due Date.

  • Alex

    The comparison of estranging oneself from a daughter who grows rabidly conservative in college and throwing your teenaged son out into the streets because they are gay is particularly offensive here. No. They are not the same thing. They are not in the same universe of morality. No, the transsexual woman who lives every day in fear of being beaten to death by cretins created by the conservative wings of Christianity is NOT the same as Rush Limbaugh. What planet are you on?

    • http://www.facebook.com/eddie.greene.562 Eddie Greene

      The category of elimination is depicted when one person throws their gay child out of the house. They are eliminating their problem.

      The category of elimination is also depicted when the Atheist mom “draws the line” and no longer speaks to her daughter because of her Christian beliefs.

      The severity of the situation is not what is being discussed; nor the ramifications of their decisions upon their children; rather the focus is classifying the parents reaction. The parents are viewing their children as problems to be eliminated based on a characteristic, rather than loving them because a single characteristic does not define them or make them unworthy of love.

    • ZacDilone

      I agree with Eddie here. Margot’s emphasis is on we treat those who are different from us (see the Volf quote), and separation is a common thread on both sides of the aisle. No attempt is made to gauge the morality of specific acts, only to point out that to deny to love to someone because they are “other” is a common thread no matter what side of the aisle you find yourself on.

    • TheodoreSeeber

      I’m sorry, I see them as *exactly* the same- broken people reacting out of fear and loathing.

      Whether that fear and loathing is rational or not is what you’re trying to draw the line on, and fear and loathing is never rational.

    • http://twitter.com/JamesTysonSutro James Tyson Sutro

      Alex, you’re way off base on this one bro.

    • raytheist

      Alex, I agree with you. It is one thing to distance yourself from a relative who holds different beliefs — in this case you are the one doing the distancing and keeping yourself apart from that person. It is quite another to put the other person in harm’s way (putting them in therapy, throwing them out of the house, etc.) for being different. I can change me and my surroundings and my circle of associates and friends. I cannot change people, nor should I try, but when their attitudes and behaviors become toxic it is up to me to change ME and my proximity to them; I have no right to punish or harm another for being different, but when the difference is hurtful to me, I can move myself out of the way.

  • tearly

    Thank you, Christian, for the reminder of “radical acceptance”. For me, the reminder that I can (and am called to) love someone without accepting or endorsing their beliefs/behaviors is the bane of my Christian struggle: how do I discern God’s will for my life (including what I should and should not be doing) without judging people who engage in/refrain from behaviors I believe are outside the realm of “acceptable”. I have to admit I struggle with being part of the world and still being set apart from the world for God.

    • TheodoreSeeber

      As Archbishop Vlazny once said in the Oregonian- in response to the question from the reporter asking if a new soup kitchen was going to be open to non-Catholics- We do this because WE are Christian, it doesn’t matter what THEY are.

  • http://twitter.com/SDawlatly Samir Dawlatly

    Really interesting. Think Margot wrote this, if I read correctly. Very similar to some of the things that I have read Brian McLaren talking about – characteristics of religious (or anti-religious, in this case) identity. Think he also quotes Miroslav Volf.

    As a parent I wonder how I would cope with my own children as they grow up adopting completely different belief systems to me…

    Congrats to Margot on the new book too.

  • TheodoreSeeber

    The Amish version is the Shunning. I grew up with several Old German Apostolic Christians who also practiced this.

    The Catholic version is excommunication- which is *NEVER permanent*, and can always be reversed by making a full sacrament of reconciliation. Because of that, we have good reason NOT to be estranged from our loved ones who have different beliefs, because we always have the hope of a deathbed conversion.

    • raytheist

      that’s silly. Why should we hang on to the hope THEY will come to their senses and have a deathbed change of heart or mind? Maybe WE are the ones who might need changing.

      • TheodoreSeeber

        The hope of our own deathbed conversion is included in that. Which is why Catholicism is alone among Christian religions as to having developed the concept of Purgatory.

        In other words, it will all get sorted out in the end, God’s mercy and forgiveness is a darn sight as near to infinite as the universe itself.

        I hope you include your belief in Occam and skepticism in that statement- for I see them as powerful barriers to any atheist being any more open minded than your average bible thumping fundamentalist.

        • raytheist

          Oh, I see. Well, having once been a Christian, there is little likelihood I would return to thinking there is anything after this life is ended. Without extraordinary evidence, I fully expect to die an atheist.

          • TheodoreSeeber

            And as long as you are a skeptic, any such evidence that presents itself in your life will be cheerfully ignored as not being the type of evidence YOU want.

            Faith takes humility. So does accurate information seeking. I’ve yet to meet an atheist who is humble.

          • raytheist

            Actually, faith requires ignoring evidence contrary to one’s cherished belief, which requires an arrogance beyond any that a skeptic might offer.

          • http://www.facebook.com/eddie.greene.562 Eddie Greene

            Blind faith requires ignoring evidence.

            Faith that is based on evidence is a reasoned faith. For example, when we eat a meal at a restaurant we have faith that the food isn’t poisoned based on our past experiences. A reasoned faith is based on reality, where as a blind faith may ignore reality.

          • ChristianPinko

            I’ve known humble atheists. Granted, the ones who are most likely to comment about their atheism on the Internet, typically are NOT humble; but then, you’re dealing with a self-selecting sample.

  • http://twitter.com/garynealhansen Gary Neal Hansen

    Thanks, Margot, for the ever-thoughtful reflection on actually loving our actual neighbors — even if our neighbors are a wee bit different from us and happen to be our relatives.

    And congratulation on your new book!

  • Luys

    My 17-yr-old son announced at lunch (after church) today that he was going to be a Buddhist. My husband and I gave our blessing. Sincerely, although I don’t think he knows a thing about Buddhism; he just wanted to see what we’d do. I told him we all had our own journeys and I wanted him to find the path that was right for him. [Thought to myself that if the path he chose was an aspiritual one, I'd have a lot more trouble with it.]

  • Tamara

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