After Coming Out As An Atheist, I Was Shunned by My Mother

This is a guest post by Catherine Dunphy. Dunphy is the Executive Director of the Clergy Project.

I’ve thought quite a bit over the past two years about the concept of shunning in religious families. It’s been in the back of my mind for a long time, a consequence that I knew I’d eventually have to face when my mother discovered the Clergy Project. I knew that the stakes would be high and that my mother’s religious beliefs would ultimately be an obstacle to our relationship.

On many occasions over the past decade, I have spoken briefly with her about my lack of faith. Though I never lied to her, I admit that I attempted to downplay my atheist activism. My efforts were to ensure transparency, but also to limit the details and frequency of these conversations so that we could carve out space where our relationship could thrive. It was, I had thought, a happy but uncomfortable truce.

Unfortunately, this strategy came crashing down a few short weeks ago, just before my birthday.

One thing you should know about my mother is that she is a deeply religious person — her adherence to Roman Catholic orthodoxy is consistent, her faith unshakeable, and her demand for capitulation absolute. Growing up in this Catholic home was an exercise in extreme limits. The scala naturae, or “great chain of being,” dictated that my parents — in particular, my mother — had absolute authority over their children. The only authority to which my mother submitted, was that of the Church, and therefore God.

As a child, I didn’t know that praying the rosary on my knees every night was an out-of-the-ordinary event, that saying novenas was not a spare-time activity, and that other children did not feel shame and guilt for the crucifixion and death of Jesus. In all aspects, I was an indoctrinated child.

I can remember the feel of the glassy rosary beads between my fingers. The repetitive nature of the call and response prayer was calming. The rosary would often come apart as I clutched the beads in my hands, intent in prayer. My mind and heart were focused on contrition as I sought the calming presence of the hand of God with each repeated Hail Mary.

Holy Mary, mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our deaths, Amen.

I called upon the Holy Mother to intercede on my behalf, despite my unworthiness, and knew that the only salvation for my sinfulness was penitence. Sadly, this pattern of extreme religious adherence plagued me until I went to college and began studying Theology. Slowly, reason began to infiltrate the medieval worldview in which I had been raised. Life on the outside was at once thought-provoking, exciting, and terrifying. My transformation from theist to atheist took many years and incarnations, but a constant threat to my personal development and intellectual growth was the interpretation and criticism of my mother.

Despite all of this, I confronted the fear honestly and told her that I was no longer a believer before I completed my Masters. Given the limited discussion over the years, I thought her silence was the expression of her commitment to our relationship. Sadly, I now think that she just misunderstood and was waiting for the right time to confront me.

The day before my birthday, my mother took me to dinner, just the two of us. I expected an easy-going conversation about getting older, life changes, etc. But that wasn’t what happened.

Almost immediately after we ordered, she jumped to the conversation of morality. I attempted to distract her and downplay her adversarial tone, but that failed as she sternly focused on my liberal transgressions and my rejection of Catholic orthodoxy. It quickly became apparent that she was very angry and that she had discussed my apostasy with someone else — most likely a priest. In her opinion, I didn’t receive the “right kind of theological training” and my loss of faith was the fault of my educators. I attempted to dissuade her from this conversation, to make light of it and move on, but she couldn’t let it go. My ideas and values were contrary to Catholicism, so the critique continued. According to her, my family and I were immoral, decrepit, and godless. (She was one for three.) The worse transgression, in her opinion, was that my actions were an affront to her status, and I owed her the decency of coming back to the faith. I attempted to appease her without compromising my integrity but unfortunately she interpreted this as a continuation of my “abhorrent and disrespectful behavior.” I tried again and again to negotiate common ground, but after being confronted by continually escalating histrionics, in which she characterized me as “the devil” and declared my husband and I to be “immoral,” I recognized the cold fact that her faith was more important to her than our relationship.

I am not the only member of the Clergy Project — or in the wider atheist community — who has experienced this kind of reaction from a family member regarding their non-belief. The impact on personal relationships is one of the biggest deterrents for Clergy Project members coming out as atheist. It is naive to underestimate the motivation that one feels to sustain primary relationships. It’s a sad testament to the power of religious indoctrination that some believers will sacrifice relationships because they are unwilling or unable to recognize that a change in belief has not irrevocably altered the person that they love.

For Clergy Project members and for atheists who have struggled with religious family members, the sting of shunning may remain, but the ability to cope can be buttressed by the support of a community of peers. My mother perceives me as an outsider and this perception, however artificial, delineates a clear end to our relationship — but that doesn’t mean I can’t get past it.

It hurts to acknowledge the role that religion and religious indoctrination has had in my personal life and my primary relationships. Still, moving forward, I can only mourn, accept, and refuse to allow religious dysfunction to infiltrate my gratitude for my life, my family and my community.

A version of this post will appear in an upcoming book about the Clergy Project and its members.

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.

  • Sweetredtele

    I flipped it on them. I told my evangelical family that if they try to convert me back or treat me any differently, I would leave the family. The entire family. They welcome me warmly to every family event I attend since then with no conversion attempts. Shunning can work both ways.

    • Holytape

      That’s really not shunning. That’s expecting to be treated in a dignified manner, like any normal human being would be.

      • Vlad Tepesdracula


      • Sweetredtele

        Of course it wasn’t shunning, because I didn’t have to do it. It would have been and still can possibly be me shunning them. No one wants to be the reason for that, so it hasn’t occurred yet. Yet.

  • The Other Weirdo

    This is sad. On a personal note, I’ve been told by women whom I’ve tried dating that God was the most important person in their lives. This, from women who actually had children. It’s one thing to not be as important as the children, but to always be second fiddle to an invisible being who never speaks or shows themselves was an untenable position.

    • Steven M. Long

      Yeah, when I read this it just seemed very, very sad.

    • Tracie, Dancr

      Imagine being her children. It’s bad enough thinking your brother or sister is ahead of yourself in Mom’s affections. But to be beat out by an imaginary being, now, well, that sucks.

    • wialno28

      In my family, it’s God first, then the spouse, then the child. I’m not even second in my family, I’m third in terms of importance. My parents love both their god and each other more than me. I had no idea how much that sucks until I left the church.

  • Randay

    “an affront to her status”. That says it all. It is a version of “honor” killings for the Muslims but much less severe. Who cares about “honor”, whatever that is, or status? How can someone’s “honor” or “status” be reduced by another party?

    Is an interest in “status” the sin of pride for Xians?

    • Faith Bavonese

      Yes, it is. Using religion for status is strictly forbidden in the Bible. Such persons were called “Pharisees” by Jesus. He never had anything nice to say about them. (I’m a formerly Catholic atheist.)

    • James Stevenson

      Mmm I guess if people judge you for failing to raise your children to be good little obedient drones. The emphasis on falling into line to repair her mothers reputation is absolutely repugnant. If there was anything sympathetic to say here it would be fear for a daughters lost soul to suffer for eternity. Still claptrap as far as I’m concerned but at least that would be based in empathy.
      Her actual response…. I just don’t have words for it. My biggest kudos for the author for respectfully trying to maintain her relationship with her mother despite the differences. And my most profound sympathies that this wasn’t possible.

    • UWIR

      She was saying that her mother considered herself to be in a position of authority over her, and that her disregarding her mother’s wishes was affront to her mother’s position, or status, of being in authority over her.

  • chicago dyke, TOWAN

    i’ve been through this, on the gay side. it gets better, as the saying goes. it hurts a lot, but in the end it’s more important to realize what people truly value. if that’s not you, those people should not be in your life. even if they are your ‘family.’ hang in there, Ms. Dunphy.

  • JPC

    Thanks for sharing, and my condolences.

  • Liesl McQuillan

    I’ve just recently had two young atheists move in with me because their families kicked them out after finding out they were atheists and had white boyfriends. I just don’t understand it. I’d like to understand it, but I guess you can’t understand the entirely irrational.

    • Pitabred

      “Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.”
      – Yoda

      They fear a life without god, that they might have been wasting their time, that they won’t see their loved ones in heaven, that they might not live forever. So much so that they’ll destroy relationships to keep the illusion.

      • Jeff

        Any time you can quote Yoda, it is always appropriate.

        • Mjolnir

          Appropriate it is, that Yoda, you quote.

          • Jeff

            With that reply, won the Internet, have you.

      • Pofarmer

        It’s not that they fear a life without God. They fear a life without the church. Many Catholics can’t seperate the idea of the Church from
        God. They can’t envision the Church could do anything wrong because, in their minds, the church IS God. Therefore, thinking for yourself about anything at all to do with the Church is bad, very bad. To be seperated from the Church is to be seperated from God. And, that includes all the patently silly. Absurd, impossible stuff the church believes. And it gives priests and representatives of the Church a LOT of power in their lives.

        • Expos

          That sums up my family’s Catholicism. They rarely talk about the man Jesus, they are focused on the Church.

      • litesp33d

        Not so much Yoda as Buddha. But the sentiments are the same.

        However I suspect it is not that they fear life without God but rather they fear the impact the Church will have on them because they have ‘failed’ to raise a child to follow the creed. Because now (they think) the entire community is judging them and so they better prove they are true to the faith even if it means losing the child, and their childs contaminating ideas. And they better do this lest, as has happened to so many others, the community turns on them next and then they will be ‘alone’. And as the church/community is their life where would they turn.

        This is the insidious psychology of religion. It is not the after life but the life on Earth that worries them. All religions work their ‘magic’ like this. Just that some are better at it than others.

  • Jeff

    I would love to say something really enlightening, I’d even love to be able to provide some meaningful, epiphany-evoking quote from someone else. But I can’t. I’m an INTJ, so interactions with others are, by default, events that suck the life out of me, so social things (and my subsequent social skills) are not good. That means I can’t comprehend this. I don’t understand how I would be harmed by NOT allowing someone in my life that wishes to control me, rejects me as a human being, and enforces their world view on me for THEIR personal satisfaction. I do empathize, and hope for the best for you to be able to reach some level of personal acceptance that lets you be happy.

  • Guest

    I’m pleased that I talked a Jehovah’s Witness mother out of shunning her son, though I’m pretty sure the reason she came to me was because she wanted to be talked out of it. She was already upset that he was moving out, then he told her he wanted to leave the church and she said some angry things, so they weren’t speaking. I told her that the most important thing she had to do was make it clear to him that she loves him and he’s always family, no matter what, and that she absolutely MUST make peace with him before he moved in with the roommates, no matter how scared she was about his future. Happily they are still close.

  • Vlad Tepesdracula

    I’ve had a much, much milder version of this to happen to my mother and by extension my siblings and I. My mother’s family are for the most part devout Catholics. When I was a child, they often came to my house and had us pray and give thanks to the lord and many other things, despite what my father (a complete atheist) and my mother (a tolerant catholic) had to say, only acting offended after they had done the deed, which was trying to indoctrinate us, the children. This came to a head in my teenage years, when I, already a completely self aware atheist decided that I didn’t want religion plaguing my life and making me feel guilty. They made a huge fuss and declared me a “rude young man who is not worthy of the kingdom of heaven.” My mother, surprised at her brother and sister taking such a harsh stance, entered a deep depression and my father, upon finding out expelled them from the house (because by the time he showed up they hadn’t even considered leaving, despite their disruptive actions). There were blows, there were insults, condemnations and promises of eternal punishment. More than ten years have passed and while my mother still retains some kind of faith, she no longer has tried or allowed anyone to convert her children.

    • The Other Weirdo

      Blows? Actual blows, ones that really hurt, or virtual ones that promise fictional punishments by nonexistent entities?

  • UnePetiteAnana

    I’m not going to pretend to know what it feels like to be shunned by my parents, because I don’t know that feeling. I can imagine this is very startling to your mom, however, it doesn’t excuse her emotional abuse through her words – calling you “the devil”, and other things she said. On the flip side of this, you’ll find people of religion (“devout” or not-so-devout) that wouldn’t give your beliefs a second thought and y’all would have a great friendship. I think what makes this all so very worse is that this is your mom. I can’t imagine looking at my mom, telling her I had left religion behind, and her telling me I was an embarrassment – I can imagine that hurts very deeply.

    I left fundamentalism a while back, and I’ve never received outright criticism for it (although, I must disclose that I left fundamentalism for a Southern Baptist church … believe it or not, there is a difference), but I’ve had a few friends who have done the same and have received criticism. Anyway, I wanted to respond to your story because no matter what a child’s (adult or young) belief, it’s very shameful a parent can want to put an end to their relationship with said child. However, I wouldn’t give up on your mom. Sure, you can play the tough card but all that really gets you is *no* chance for a relationship with your mom. I’m not saying put yourself in a position to continue to receive verbal attacks, but send her a card every now and then and let her know you’re thinking of her. If you miss her, tell her. She may not respond well … or she could.

    I’m not saying at all to give Christianity a chance, you’ve seemingly made up your mind about that. The only thing I’m saying here is to give your mom a chance.

  • feekoningin

    I can’t imagine what that must be like. I never really had to “come out” except when I chose to with strangers. I was never baptized, and there were other non-believers, including my mother, maternal grandmother and paternal grandfather and uncle on both sides of my family. Surprisingly, I never even got offers to pray for me from my grandmother, as I do from other people. What I find interesting is how Catherine Dunphy’s mother made it about her. And I, frankly, would say the response wasn’t very Christian since passing judgment is a no-no, and calling your daughter the devil clearly is passing judgment. As everyone else here has said, it will get better with time.

    • busterggi

      My former mother-in-law had both my kids baptised against our wishes. I don’t think they know that and it doesn’t seem to have affected their heathen ways.

    • Allen

      It’s interesting. Dark Matter 2525 is one of my favorite youtube people who talks about God and Atheism. Here is the video that he made to try to explain why a person would make that rejection about her.

  • Sa Ke

    I’m going through this. Have been for about 4 years. It’s been difficult. Good luck!

  • Anton

    You only shun the ones you love.

    • Bob Peters

      Please elaborate.

      • Anton

        Just a joke, dude.

  • busterggi

    Yeah, my folks never accepted it but they weren’t particularly devout so we sort of agreed to diagree. Which is exceptionally good actually.

    I suppose your mom could always look forward to looking down from heaven at you in hell burning for eternity – that’s also Catholic dogma too.

    • GarColga

      Not dogma. The scenario is from Summa Theologica by Thomas Aquinas. Catholics are free not to believe that.

      • Mario Strada

        But many enjoy the thought.

      • busterggi

        Oh, Aquinas! i didn’t realize that came from a heretic.

        • GarColga

          Aquinas is not a heretic he’s a “Doctor of the Church.”

      • F*ckingDifficultToSign in

        hu-hummm…. don’t you mean Saint Thomas of Aquinas? In any case, thanks for the info, I didn’t know that.

  • Neko

    Ms. Dunphy, yours is such a sad story. I’m so sorry and can only admire your decency and integrity.

    My family has expressed very slight and infrequent hostility toward me for atheism, but there was an episode when my mother, a cradle Roman Catholic, suddenly went into a fury over my unbelief. It was disturbing but it passed, and we are on good terms. I hope in time your mother reconciles with you. Meanwhile, you are not alone!

  • ZenDruid

    Catholic mothers, as a stereotype, are the most insidious guilt-mongers for the pope.

    • Q. Quine

      Zen, I have often wondered if there is something about the abuse of women in the RCC that inspires that. Something like the nectar of devotion to her abuser that makes her pass it on to her children. Might it be the case that if women had more status, they would be able to put questions to the establishment, and perhaps, be more open to questions from their own offspring?

      • ZenDruid

        I think the ‘mother church’, i.e. the buttocks in the pews, follow an unwritten law that any mother who can’t browbeat her children into submission, deserves public castigation. A mother can only shine forth when her offspring are suitably sheepified.

        • Q. Quine

          I do recall a time of some kind of social disfavor if none of your eight or so Catholic children became clergy or nuns. Now, you are considered lucky if any remain religious, at all.

  • Shaun Murry

    My mother wasn’t all that religious until she got older. Suddenly, I’m the bad guy because I came out and said the word atheist. One aunt scolded me, saying I should have kept my mouth shut to keep the peace. WHY do they feel better holding on to a lie than embracing a truth? Why is the word so powerful that one minute I have a family and the next minute, I don’t? It wasn’t a secret how I felt- I thought they all knew! I am the only child not married in a church, the only one that doesn’t attend services, the one that wore a yin-yang symbol instead of a cross for YEARS, I said repeatedly that Nature is my god and my spouse and I wed in a gazebo next to a lake… I am still the same person I have always been! You bet this hurts.

  • freethinker57

    I am lucky both my parents were acknowledged atheists, I was always welcome to pursue whatever thoughts/beliefs I chose. I wonder what THEY had to face though, both came from staunch Catholic backgrounds; my father once was shunned by his mom during the 1940′s/WW2 for becoming engaged to a woman who was divorced. Just when you think we haven’t made any progress, it is good to pause and reflect how far we really have come. Still long ways to go thou…..

  • Lori Atkinson

    My family is similar. I was outed by a family member reading my blog about me being a bisexual AND an atheist. It has been rough and sad and I feel very alone at family gatherings. Most of the time (for example, this upcoming holiday) I have to make a move and invite myself to see them (a 6 hour drive) and be subjected to family prayers and endless talk of god and church. ZZZZ I feel your pain. :(

    • Jed Wheeler

      Just stop going. When they realize you simply won’t come if they treat you like that they’ll either shape up and reach out or not. If so, great! Family gatherings just got easier. If not, build a new support network with people who actually love and respect you for who you are instead of what their imaginary friend tells them you should be. Either way you’ll save yourself a lot of pain.

      • Lori Atkinson

        I agree, and I should do that. However, my kids like to be able to see their grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins.

  • Darric

    I have to admit I have never understood the need for close relationships with family. Unlike friends, family is random, you dont get to pick them. So why do people have this need to have some sort of different relationship with them.
    If a friend treats you poorly you tell them they are being a dick and if they continue then you stop being their friend. Why would it be any different with a family member?
    Being a blood relation isnt some mystical, magical connection. It’s no more special a relationship than you make it.

    • LizzyJessie

      I’m sure there’s a whole study on the sociological importance of the family structure. In the modern world it may not seem so necessary since we have the ability to reach out and connect with people half a world away, but it wasn’t always so.

      In a basic sense, blood relatives are usually a part of an individual’s support network for the majority of their lives. They’re there for protection, education, socializing, and your other basic survival needs. On a biochemistry level, you are physically and emotionally addicted to them just as they are to you.

      We evolved for hundreds of thousands of years to make these sorts of connections. It’s difficult for most to break these bonds between family members unless there’s already some sort of disconnect: Such as the mother who placed her god before her own family and took it as a personal insult that her daughter didn’t fall in line explicitly.

    • prochoice

      You experienced (wasted, I feel) your childhood with them.
      20 years are quite a bit of time.

    • Anna

      It’s not even about blood. It’s about relationships. I’m not biologically related to much of my family, and I would be just as devastated to lose those connections.

      Parents and siblings are the people you first attach to; they’re your primary relationships for the first 18 years (or more) of your life. That’s why it’s so hard for most people to walk away from their family of origin.

  • the moother

    Why would anyone feel

    shame and guilt for the crucifixion and death of Jesus

    when the sole purpose of jesus is to die and therefore “save” us?

    We should all rejoice in the death of jesus for this very reasn…. not feel shame and guilt and blame it on the jews.

    Religion: makes less and less sense the more we examine it.

    • Pofarmer

      Yep..catholics can’t be happy without being convinced of how bad they are.

      • Anna

        And they’re so convinced that the rest of us secretly feel just as bad as they do. A life free of religious guilt and shame must be unfathomable to them.

    • raerants

      I’m reminded of the line Serendipity says to Bethany in the movie Dogma, on the subject of Cathoilcs: “You people don’t celebrate your faith; you mourn it.”

  • Ashley N.

    This article made me very glad that my mother (a very religious person) accepts me, loves me, and supports me in every aspect of my life. All she has ever said to me about my atheism was “I wish you believed as I do, but I love you and support your decision and your beliefs.” THAT, ladies and gentlemen, is how a good Christian parent deals with atheist children (both my sister and I).

    • Allen

      This is exactly how my parents reacted. It’s reassuring to have parents who are able to be like this. I hate it for anyone to have relationships like the ones expressed in the writers post. I have had relationships like those in the past. All of them, I terminated.

    • Carol Lynn

      I became an atheist in my teens and my mother didn’t understand but never stopped supporting me. If you are very lucky, when you’re nearly a senior citizen yourself and your mother is in her 90s she comes over and tells you you were right all along. She has thought about it for years and has now given up being Catholic and religious and has embraced atheism. Yeah. It happened to me. My mom is 92 and still awesome.

  • BassGroove

    I have had similar experiences and have cycled in and out of relationships with many of my family members due to this clash of world views. The latest bout occurred only yesterday when my mother finally un-friended me on Facebook after announcing to the world on her page that she was changing her will to cut me out. I try and try, but short of becoming the person they think I should be instead of remaining as the person I actually am it appears to be an insoluble issue.

    I even didn’t tell them I was getting married 10 years ago because the pressure of them demanding a Catholic marriage would have been far too stressful and so it was only after the marriage that they found out. Could I have handled it better? Sure, probably, but it gets too much when it always comes back to them deciding my life and values and decisions should be more about them and what they want than about me. They just don’t get it. They see it all as personal attacks against them. I wish nothing but the best for any of them and am always available to help with support, kind words and money if they need it, but they still remain intractable on this and other related issues.

    They do not realise that most of what they say to me revolves around them trying to get be to be or act a certain way and a large part of this relates to the framework and belief structures within which they reside.

    They just don’t get it. It seems like they will never get it. Pretty much every conversation with them revolves around them telling me to act, be, do certain things. They seem to think this is the best way to have a dialogue, yet it is only ever a preachy monologue to an ungrateful audience.

    If I even try to explain my point of view or express any deviation from their self imposed dogma then I am the aggressive one, I am the one who is the sheep strayed from the flock. If I actually did what every fibre of me wants to do, which is tell them what I think of their values, their choices, the failures of their world views and to give them back even a fraction of the advice they so consistently throw at me then I think they may just spontaneously implode.

    The thing is, I actually respect them too much to do that to them. I don’t want to hurt them by trying to rip down their world views, their moral frameworks and to point out the numerous errors of their ways. We are just humans, here to do the best for ourselves and for one another. Does it have to be so hard?

    All I want in return from them is that they show me the same respect and that we try to thrive on the many more things we should share in common. Is that too much to ask for?

    I am now quite vocal about atheism and link a lot of our community’s bits and pieces on FB and whenever someone around me edges the conversation towards religion I do not hold back on expressing my views. Probably too much, probably to over compensate for the pressures to be religious in my past continuing to haunt my present. Perhaps one day I may learn to relax about it all a little more. I hope so, despite the enormous festering wounds I see in the world at large as a direct result of the woo-woo and religion that infects so much and the resultant overwhelming need I feel to try and chip away at it with every opportunity.

    I am now 41, married for a decade, very happily. We have a quiet, peaceful life and pretty much the only ongoing source of stress and pain is whenever we have contact with certain elements of my family. They can be so close minded, so emotionally charged and hyper-sensitive and seem to define all aspects of one another’s lives with shades of guilt, blame and intolerance.

    Am I perfect? Am I any better than them? Well, hell, I am not perfect. I don’t think better is the right expression, but I sure do seem more relaxed, happier and able to confront, solve or accept most problems.

    My wife instantly knows when I am about to deal or just have dealt with anyone in my family as I become tense, am quick to snap at her and she can feel the edginess and frustration seeping out of me. It’s just toxic.

    Do I want a relationship with them? Yes. I genuinely do. However, having a meaningful relationship with most of them would extract too high a cost. The cost would be my rationality, my free thinking, my values, my peace of mind, my integrity. In essence, the cost would be pretty much everything that makes me who I am, and for what? To please people who seem unable to be pleased, to lie to them and to myself, to twist myself up in mental knots after spending decades trying to unravel those twists in the first place? I don’t think I could do this even if I tried.

    So now, we have passing, surface contact with them. I want them in my life, but not at the cost of my life.

    I even don’t want to post this for fear that one of them recognises I am speaking about them and it hurts them.

    Damn. It shouldn’t be this difficult.

    Coming here, seeing these sorts of posts… I know I am not alone. Also, me writing this means some of you will also know you are not alone.

    Strength, peace and love to you all who are going through these battles.

    • Pofarmer

      fwiw I know exactly the types you are talking about. Otherwise nice people, just completely unbelievably brainwashed.

    • Bob Peters

      So well written it was fun to read but the story was heart breaking. You deserve so much better.

    • Formerly Rebecca

      Well do I know the feeling…I came out a year ago, naively thinking it wouldn’t cause that many significant ripples, but all hell broke lose. My sister got married a month or two after I declared I wasn’t a Christian and conspicuously left me alone out of the wedding, me alone of her seven siblings, me who had been her best friend growing up. That devastated me and I sent her spontaneous bursts of emotion in texts and emails (she blocked me on Facebook), telling her the least she could do was tell me why she was treating me this way. Of course I heard nothing from her.

      Now I’m so through with her. I realize that even if we did make up, even if she apologized profusely for her actions, we can never really be close again since she is a Believer and I am a heathen, a liberal and feminist and atheist. It’s too stressful to try to forge any kind of relationship with her other than the small talk family gatherings will require and I have zero energy left to do that. I’m emotionally exhausted.

      Now she’s pregnant and round two will be upon us soon. I’ve always wanted to be an aunt, adore babies and children in general, and I would be an awesome aunt I know. But my evil influence won’t be allowed anywhere near that kid, I know…

  • martinsnapp

    Nice job, Mom. You cast out your own child. A perfect lesson for Christmas.

  • PersephoneK

    That is heartbreaking to read.

  • Amy

    My Mother had a very similar reaction. I have found that there are underlying mental health issues in relation to this type of reaction. It’s so extreme and over powers a parents ability to love a child. My Mother has borderline personality disorder. She finally gave up religion like I had, but what I though was the problem with our relationship (Christianity) didn’t go away. She just found new issues to have with me instead of the fact I was possessed and going to hell.

  • Betsy McCall

    My Catholic grandmother was a lot like this woman’s mother, but just a shade more humane. My mother and her siblings went to Catholic schools, and received intense Catholic indoctrination; one of the children had to be at church every day and this took precedence over things like homework. And while my grandmother did eventually choose family over the Church when push came to shove (she didn’t shun her divorced children, for instance, or me when I told her I didn’t believe), she did, nonetheless, constantly worry about it. She frequently sent out requests to have nuns pray for her family (so frequently that I had to ask her to stop). She often sent missives to her wayward children, about how she was going to be alone in heaven, and how sad this made her, clearly trying to use guilt to force compliance that she could not enforce any other way. As she got older, this kind of pressure became more and more frequent as she approached her own death. It made me very angry with the Church that it would make my grandmother suffer so much, fearing all her life for herself and her children. How this brought her comfort… that, I never understood.

    I hope the author’s mother talks to a forgiving priest and is able to meet her halfway. Priests, like our recent popes, come in many flavours. Some wouldn’t make her choose this way.

  • Liam

    It never fails to amaze me how low some family members will stoop to manipulate other members of their family. This is why I excommunicated my entire biological family in 2000: they had more interested in making me fit their choices than in my happiness.

    • prochoice

      Same in 1977

  • clebcal

    Obviously the father seems somewhat absent – typical atheist. That coupled with the obnoxious solipsistic musings are trademarks of the atheist experience.

    • Neko

      If I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing.

      Think about it.

      • clebcal

        It’s unloving not to be harsh when it comes to a destructive and narcissistic psychological disorder like atheism. I also love how you and other atheists resort to using Christian morality to attack Christianity. I suppose you’re trying to expose hypocrisy but what it really exposes is atheism’s inviabilitiy. Atheism is parasitic in that it has to borrow morality. Atheists in the West use a Jewish or Christian morality – others in the past have used more of a Marxist morality which ended in piles and piles of skulls. I’m thankful that most atheists I interact with today instinctively abide by the Christian morality that the foundation of our Western culture rests on. But by assaulting Christian morality they’re like a cackling fool sawing off the branch he’s perched on. The inevitable end of the parasite is it’s own destruction as it both lives on and kills its host.

        • Neko

          You seem to have missed the point.

          Your own religion teaches that love (or charity if you prefer) is one of the two supreme commandments. This lady Ms. Dunphy is obviously pained by her mother’s choice to embrace religious absolutism over love and acceptance. You are doing exactly the same thing, choosing culture war instead of common decency, much less the moral imperatives of Jesus. What good is all your faith if you act with cruelty? Whores and atheists will enter the kingdom before you do.

          Note that the Bible is not your personal possession as a Christian, but a literary artifact that’s deeply embedded in our culture. All culture is parasitic. It doesn’t arise out of a vacuum. So your bitterness is for nothing.

          • clebcal

            Get off your patronizing high horse. Absolutism? This coming from an atheist? Tell me mother hen, do you chide the Freedom from Religion Foundation for their cruelty? Are you a knight in shining armor that cruses the internet exposing the cruelty of Christians, atheists, pagans and Muslims? I doubt it. Why don’t you stick with the arguments presented in the thread rather then attacking a person’s character. My character has nothing to do with the whether or not the things I say are true. If you’re an atheist and you think I’m not following Christ shouldn’t you be congratulating me? By the way, Christ would speak harshly and he never said anything about an atheist entering the kingdom of heaven. He wouldn’t be so cruel as to allow someone to live in his kingdom when they want nothing to do with him.

            • Neko

              I’m sorry, let’s concentrate on your “arguments” in response to Ms. Dunphy, who shared a painful story about a personal trauma:

              Obviously the father seems somewhat absent – typical atheist. That coupled with the obnoxious solipsistic musings are trademarks of the atheist experience.

              This was a grotesque thing to say, yet you are unaware of it, or that you are the mirror-image of the thing you despise.

              Why would I need to be on a world-wide-web crusade to object to your offensive remark? It was pretty glaring in this very particular context. As for atheist cruelty (please explain the cruel ways of the FFRF), atheism is value-neutral. The only thing atheists have in common is lack of belief in god/s. I can’t make further assumptions about the worldview of other atheists, or whether they walk the walk of their personal convictions. (At least not off the bat.) Since you appeared here in defense of Christianity, it’s not unfair to hold you to it.

              The kingdom: that was irony. As for “congratulating you,” what? I’ve no interest in bringing you to atheism. I was trying to encourage a little empathy.

        • Michael Powers

          I suppose it’s a matter of perception. To me, religion is one of the most immoral things that have ever existed. Especially the concept of original sin. The notion that we are all born somehow tainted, and requiring the forgiveness of some divine being is truly obscene. The world’s longest running psychosis, and responsible for the low self esteem of a whole species. “You have a disease, and we have the only cure.” As scams go, it’s a good one.

          Are we flawed? Certainly. Nothing is perfect. Nor should it be. Perfection is a static, sterile thing. Your western morality has destroyed whole civilizations. A being who would inflict such things on humanity, if it truly existed, would have only my contempt.

          • clebcal

            Not sure what to tell you. You seem to contradict yourself when you say how the concept of original sin is one of the most immoral things but then that humans are certainly flawed. Western morality hasn’t destroyed civilization – it is the very foundation of civilization. Find one that’s better, past or present and please go live in it.

            • Michael Powers

              Are you being obtuse, or are you really not getting it? There is a difference between flawed and inherently evil. A newly born human, while flawed, has certainly done nothing requiring of forgiveness, especially by someone’s imaginary friend. State religions did exist in America – right up until the Constitution, when, in their wisdom, the founders omitted references to such things. And for good reason. In those days, if you were the wrong kind of Christian in the wrong state, you stood a very good chance of getting dead. Pennsylvania Quakers are a good example. I have no doubt that the secular nature of this nation’s government is the only reason there aren’t death squads, roaming the Midwest, lopping off cheerleader’s heads for being “immodest”. One look at the Middle East should make clear the dangers of state sponsored religion. It’s amazing what horrors “good” people will gleefully participate in, when they believe it to be the will of their god. My morality doesn’t require threats of eternal damnation, or the hope of everlasting reward.

          • UnePetiteAnana

            “western morality” – Christianity originated in the middle east. What’s funny is you blame Christianity for requiring forgiveness; would you be hurt if someone called you a degrading name? Would you expect them to say they are sorry and ask you for forgiveness? You go on to say humans are flawed – why are they flawed? You haven’t answered that question. And you haven’t provided any sort of explanation as to why you believe they’re flawed and what system you’re using to measure their “flawed-ness”.

            • Feminerd

              Ah, see, asking for and receiving forgiveness are entirely different. If I do something wrong, I am ethically required to try to atone for it and apologize for it to whoever was wronged. The wronged party, on the other hand, has absolutely no obligation to forgive me. I screwed up, and one of the consequences for that can be losing a relationship.

              Christianity subverts that and turns it on its head. Not only does it completely erase the atonement and “try to fix it” parts, it doesn’t even require you to ask forgiveness of the wronged party. You can ask Jesus, he forgives you, and done! No sacrifice, no hard work, no personal growth required. No attempts to actually fix the harm done to other people. Furthermore, it moves the onus onto the wronged party to forgive. It takes the victim and victimizes them a second time by saying that their feelings of hurt and anger are immoral or wrong! Substitutionary atonement is one of the most immoral, unethical religious creeds I have ever come across.

              • UnePetiteAnana

                Matthew 5:23-24

                23 “Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, 24 leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to them; then come and offer your gift.”

                God commands us to be reconciled with those we offend. Also, forgiveness doesn’t negate real consequences. Forgiveness means you aren’t going to be angry at someone and hold it against them, however, you’re not obligated to like them or to continue a relationship with them. Christianity doesn’t subvert that, it expounds that.

                What does this have to do with what I was commenting on?

            • Michael Powers

              Cite to me any instance of perfection in the natural world. It doesn’t exist. We are flawed because everything is flawed. That is as it should be. But a newly born child has absolutely nothing to be forgiven for. Especially by some mythical sky-god. I’m an atheist not because I don’t believe in god. I don’t believe in perfection, and forever, both of which seem to preclude the existence of such a being. And Christianity has been in possession of the Western(ized) world since the Crusades (one of many civilizations destroyed).

              • UnePetiteAnana

                Oh! The obligatory Crusades reference!

                • Michael Powers

                  The Arabs had advanced mathematics and astronomy while your ancestors were still sacrificing virgins to trees. As soon as Christianity got a hold of them, they decided to invade lands they had absolutely no claim to, and completely destroy those cultures. Such was the will of THEIR god. In fact their bloodlust couldn’t even wait until they left their own lands. Not only did they kill every non-Christian they came across, if they encountered people who, at first glance, didn’t seem Christian enough, they generally ended up dying horribly, too. Try reading more than one book on occasion. Which reminds me. Citing a book that you know we view as fiction is probably not the greatest debate tactic.

        • Monaka der Hund

          “destructive and narcissistic psychological disorder like atheism”
          I will remember that phrase. Very funny.

          “Atheism is parasitic in that it has to borrow morality”
          Really. My morality comes from my parents, from the environment I grew up in and I live in now, and from thinking. It might well be accidentally similar to Christian, Jewish, Moslem or buddhist morality (strictly speaking, buddhists are atheists, of course).
          What theistic morality, I wonder, have most of the Chinese and the Japanese borrowed from?

        • David Björnfot

          Atheism is a non-state of being, it only tells you what people don’t believe in, and nothing about what they do believe in.

          Trying to apply a set of morals to atheists is like trying to apply a set of morals to non-stamp collectors; it is quite useless.

      • SpaceAtheist

        Exactly! Their God promises if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you can move mountains. And yet, with all the religious nuts combined, no mountains have even been moved – in fact no mountains can be moved. Either the promise is BS or not one of them has faith even the size of a mustard seed. We need to point this out for their own good. Of course, it will be hard for them to see this simple truth through the blindfold they wear. They see nothing destructive in religion, even when it blows up a building. They see nothing narcissistic in believing they have a personal god who helps them refinance their mortgage, while millions of children starve to death every day. They think they have no psychological disorder, even though they speak to an invisible man and can’t outgrow childish belief in fairy tales.

        • UnePetiteAnana

          Right, because Jesus or God couldn’t be speaking metaphorically.

          Or, might I ask, how far would a mountain have to move to be defined as movement? To another zip code? I mean, you do realize that mountains have indeed moved before via plate tectonics. Mainly they are made this way, but the movement of plates translated to the movement of mountains.

          I also see that you’ve said that Christians have no problem with God helping them refinance their mortgage while millions of children starve. I speculate your comment was typed on a computer that could have been forgone and the money spent on children starving, am I right? All you’ve done is paint broad brush-strokes of angered statements and you’ve done nothing to speak of Christianity.

          • Dale

            UnePetiteAnana – way to go! Not to mention that SpaceAtheist is also consuming air that could be much better delivered to a CHRISTian who may be suffocating under a building collapse (or something)!

            • Michael Powers

              Ah, Christian bloodlust at it’s finest.

    • Nemo

      Just curious: are you being sarcastic or not? It sounds sarcastic, but you can never be sure. I know people who would respond in this manner to the article.

    • Gehennah

      I’d love to see your statistics showing that the typical atheist father is an absent one.

    • Stev84

      I thought an absent father was typical for gay people…

  • Foridin

    It is really quite impressive the narrator was able to keep calm this entire time. If I was in a similar situation, the best possible outcome I can imagine is me just calmly walking away.

  • Susan Ruffaner Gahagan

    I feel for her. Out of respect for my deceased mother, I will not go into details of my own experience. Suffice it to say I can relate. Many of us have also lost supposed friends who could not accept our lack of belief. I try to explain it is not a rejection of them…it is an inability to believe. No one can CHOOSE to believe or not. It just IS.

    • Neko


  • Mick

    You could send your mother to this website:

    It explains that a mother has no need to worry about her children leaving the church and, in fact, it could be a source of pleasure for her. Tell her to scroll down to question # 939 which asks:

    How could a mother be happy in Heaven with her child in Hell?
    In the answer it is pointed out that, “Christ loved the child more than did the mother herself, yet He is happy in Heaven. So there must be some way out.” In other words Jesus loves the child and is not upset by the agonizing torture, so why should the mother bother about such things? Toughen up and stop sniveling!

    And anyway (the answer continues) the mother could not possibly be upset by the thought of her son (or daughter) burning in the fires of hell because, “…she has no supernatural reason to love him.”

    Your mother may also enjoy reading the words of that great Catholic scholar, Thomas Aquinas, who said, “In order that the happiness of the saints may be more delightful to them and that they may render more copious thanks to God for it, they are allowed to see perfectly the sufferings of the damned.”

  • Sergio D’Afflitto

    Catherine, I was raised as Roman Catholic, too.
    I eventually became Atheist.
    If your mother is more interested to the judgment of her religious community and her faith is more important to her than the relationship with you, then move on. I know that it hurts, but it’s her who cut with you not respecting your choice.

  • Jed Wheeler

    Grew up Mormon and had similar experiences. My parents physically threw me out of their house when I was 18. I walked the four miles to my grandmother’s house and stayed with her for a month before I was able to eventually get my own place. We’ve managed to repair the relationship a bit over the years but it hasn’t been easy. It’s hard to un-do something like that.

  • Peter

    This is something that honestly keeps me up at night. As an 18 year old with a very loving family (who is helping me pay for college) I so badly want to tell them about my atheism but I fear this so much. I have a good feeling that they would not do anything drastic like kicking me out or shunning me but the fear of being seen as less bothers me. So for right now I have decided to make it something to keep under the table until there is a reason to bring it up.

  • ShoeUnited

    This mirrors my own in most respects. I was younger (early 20s) and my mother didn’t hesitate to escalate from histrionics to full blown curse words. And no Applebee’s style dinner.

    But more or less the same.

  • stevehill6

    Because the Pope wants your mother to hate you, right?

    This is not a relationship worth preserving, or losing sleep over, even if it is your own parent. Your mother has a serious mental illness.

    Just let her know you’ll be there for her if or when she ever decides she wants to try to get over her problem, and in the meantime you are going to be getting on with real life. Something she would not recognise if it jumped up and bit her.

  • johnvr

    After the second attempt to change the conversation, I would have politely excused myself, paid the bill, and left.

  • Expos

    I too was raised in a strict Catholic family, but now in my 50′s, I’m a closet atheist. My friends know, but my siblings and parents don’t. Luckily, I live in a city far enough away that I don’t have to have this conversation very often. But when it does, I try to change the subject or just bite my tongue. Sad……….

  • Elesa

    Your mom fails. End of.

    [insert insensitive blather about hoping she dies a horrible lonely death here]

  • MeisterEckhart

    What I find really sad is that so many people are drawn away from anything related to God or even the possibility of the existence of something we could call God because of the silly superstitions spread by “religious faith”. Any consideration and deliberation upon God should not be based on “holy scriptures” or teachings coming from self appointed spokespersons of such a being (should it exist), but on rational analysis through logical and philosophical thinking. God has nothing to do with religion.

    • Anna

      I want to reply, but these kinds of comments make me feel like atheists are just beating our heads against a brick wall. The only reason anyone has even heard the word “God” and has a concept of said deity is because of religion. Religion not only tells people that the supernatural is a real thing, but that this particular god exists. Without religion teaching people about that god, no one could believe in it.

      • MeisterEckhart

        “Without religion teaching people about that god, no one could believe in it”.
        So, where did the human race find the concept of deity and metaphysics from which all religions are born? Someone had to come up with this idea before any religion did exist, or not?

        • Anna

          Of course. Human beings came up with the concept of the supernatural, and they taught it to other human beings using the mechanism of religion. There is no other source for religious beliefs. They are created and maintained by ordinary humans, transmitted from adults to children, through the religions that have been passed down from generation to generation.

          But the people who invented gods and goddesses and wrote down religious stories were just regular human beings. They had no special supernatural knowledge. They knew nothing about the secrets of the universe. That’s why thinking they knew anything about the existence of deities is so nonsensical.

          • Pofarmer

            I wish I could upvote tis times 1000.

        • Pofarmer

          Ignorance mainly.

    • Brian

      “God has nothing to do with religion.”

      Imagine a world with no religion. How would you have heard of your god? You wouldn’t. God has everything to do with religion.

      • MeisterEckhart

        What I meant is that God has nothing to do with religious institutions. Every church is nothing more than a political organization with an earthly agenda. How many religions are there? How do you choose which one is right? Every single one claims to be custodian of the “truth” and that all the other ones are wrong. How many different gods should there exist to make everyone happy? Do you really believe there are God’s words in any “holy writs” we know of? Did he just make a phone call or did he have a twitter account yet?
        In this sense, God has nothing to do with the human concept of religion.

        • Carol Lynn

          It’s not just religious institutions that come from human sources. Everything we speculate about god comes from a human source, too. Exactly how are we supposed to have a non-human concept of god?

        • Brian

          Okay, and it’s nice that you feel that way, but you still only know about your god because of those religions. Simple fact. No religion means no concept of god.

    • Carol Lynn

      Right. Exactly. Please give us a good, rational, logical, philosophical proof for god. If you can come with one, it would be a first.

  • Aidan Dunn

    I’m sorry that your mother could not reconcile with you. I have been reasonably quiet about my faith as well so I know how hard it is to come out and tell the world that you are an atheist. While my immediate family is with me, it’s always difficult talking with other family members about your problems. I once had to debate religion with my cousin, and i’m not sure if our relationship has been the same since. I wish you the best.