When Atheist Children Are As Good As Dead To Their Parents

As a parent and an atheist, I got blindsided this morning.

One of the most popular pieces at the Washington Post website right now is Michael Gerson‘s brutally honest take on letting go of your children when they leave home. Gerson just saw his son off to college and writes movingly about how the experience hit him a lot harder than he was prepared for:

I know something he doesn’t — not quite a secret, but incomprehensible to the young. He is experiencing the adjustments that come with beginnings. His life is starting for real. I have begun the long letting go. Put another way: He has a wonderful future in which my part naturally diminishes. I have no possible future that is better without him close. …

The end of childhood, of course, can be the start of adult relationships between parents and children that are rewarding in their own way. I’m anxious to befriend my grown sons. But that hasn’t stopped the random, useless tears. I was cautioned by a high-powered Washington foreign policy expert that he had been emotionally debilitated for weeks after dropping off his daughter at college for the first time.

But it wasn’t Gerson’s tale of loss that gobsmacked me. It was a comment. This one, by a Washington Post reader called ariel823:

I am the mother of a 54 yr old who has valiantly fought cancer for 12 yrs and is now losing the fight, and the mother of a 56 yr old who has lymphoma and last year survived a stem cell transplant barely, and is weak and damaged but trying to hold his job. Also he exceeded his health insurance cap of $750,000 by a large sum. And our 3rd child has become an atheist in spite of his upbringing. Pain is pain, from wherever it originates.

So losing adult children to a terrible illness is the equivalent, sort of, of an adult child deciding to live free of self-delusion and superstition. Huh.

(As an aside, I wonder why God, that celestial punisher, hasn’t afflicted the atheist child with a life-threatening condition…)

I asked my (nominally Christian) wife over brunch whether she thought that it could work the other way around; if we would ever see atheists dolefully (not jokingly) equating an adult child who became religious to a child with a terminal illness. She thought it was feasible if the religion was sufficiently cultish — Scientology, say, or Pentecostalism.

I confess I’d be half-disappointed, half-baffled if our kids permanently turned to religion — especially some hardcore variety. But in no way would I think of them as damaged or as a source of existential pain on a par with having a loved one stricken with a fatal cancer.

Religious people of this stripe tie themselves in knots over nothing. Tell me again how a belief in God makes them happy and well-adjusted?

About Terry Firma

Terry Firma, though born and Journalism-school-educated in Europe, has lived in the U.S. for the past 20-odd years. Stateside, his feature articles have been published in the New York Times, Reason, Rolling Stone, Playboy, and Wired. Terry is the founder of Moral Compass, a now dormant site that poked fun at the delusional claim by people of faith that a belief in God equips them with superior moral standards. He joined Friendly Atheist in 2013.


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