[This is part two of Deanna's wildly popular guest post entitled "It's Not Me, It's You."]
In my last post I wrote about my experiences being raised in a narcissistic family system by my devoutly religious mother. In this blog, I’m going to tackle what it is like to be an atheist in a Christian family that also operates in the codependent world of character impaired people.
When an adult child of Christian narcissists “outs” herself as an atheist she becomes “the other” and sets herself up for being misunderstood, judged, and condemned by her family. Our Christian family puts us on the defensive, sometimes without even trying to understand us. We defend ourselves because we deeply desire their love and understanding, but as with many situations, once you are on the defensive you are already losing. We feel like our parents just have a need to be right about how wrong our life choices are, when all we really want from them is for them to let it go and accept us.
In these relationships, the empathy is one-sided. We empathize with our families because we once believed what they still believe. Of course we understand how they feel because they have conditioned us to live up to their expectations and be responsible for their emotions. Often they refuse to empathize with us, because we have now exposed them to their worst fear: abandoning their faith. Most of all, they are filled with shame. Shame destroys lives. Shame destroys relationships. After we “come out” to them, when our loving family thinks of us, their main emotion will now be shame. If you have never had this experience with your family, it is so hard to explain how bad they make us feel.
Empathy is a skill that can be practiced and developed. For some of us, our parents will never develop that skill toward us. Their thinking is so black-and-white that they are unable to put themselves in our shoes. We are not who they wanted us to be; that is why it is so easy for them to shame, condemn and invalidate us. I believe these responses are reactive and not much thought is put into why they are responding to us in the manner in which they do.
Incidentally, if you have a Christian parent who actually does demonstrate real empathy toward you, and you feel that sense of understanding from them—the lack of projecting their fears, shame, and emotions onto you—please understand this is not the kind of parent I am writing about.
I KNOW WHAT YOU’RE THINKING
If you are a child of a character impaired parent you know exactly what they are going to say before they say it. One time, I was preparing to have a family party at my home. As my mother walked down the driveway, I turned to my husband and said, “As soon as my mother walks in she is going to say A, then B, then C.” I can’t remember exactly what I said at the time, but I imagine it was something along the lines of: Your windows are dirty, you need to clean them; you look beautiful but you should wear more make-up; oh my god, I am so exhausted, I have been killing myself working, me, me, me, MMEEEEEEE!” And sure enough, it went down exactly like I predicted. He whispered to me in the kitchen, “Holy crap, honey, I can’t believe she said exactly what you said she would.” He looked at me with pride, like I was a part of the Psychic Friends Network, and we laughed.
Now if we can do this with minor, day-to-day stuff, do you suppose we are incapable of understanding what our parents think about the big things like religion and morality? Character impaired parents never bothered to get to know who we really are, or they denigrated the things we love and are good at, because they aren’t things they love or value. Or maybe they have been conditioned to think our abilities are somehow immoral, and dirty, or sinful. My mother is always offended by my sometimes bawdy sense of humor, and would blame that talent on my dead father who didn’t even get the chance to raise me (Although after writing that I think I like the idea of blaming my filthy mouth on genetics and not taking any responsibility for it!).
They would prefer we just continue to play-act the role they assigned to us at birth, and not make them have to confront our real selves. See, they do not need to know anything about us or our personal experience to make the proper diagnosis about what pathology we must have that made us abandon their religious beliefs. In Christian narcissism what matters is whatever is going on in the head of the Christian who is talking at you. What matters is instilling fear, invalidating our experiences, attacking our character, and wishing bad upon us through magic. Those of us who have come out to our Christian friends and family see that they have already decided for us why we became atheist, our thoughts, experiences and feelings are of no value to them.
LOVE IS CONTROL, LOVE IS FEAR, LOVE IS CRITICISM
My ex-Christian friends have helped me put together a list of the reactive comments we endure in the name of Christian love from our friends and family:
This is just a small sampling of things our parents are allowed to say to us without any reflection that what they are saying at best invalidates our feelings, and at worst is emotionally abusive. Their delusional belief system is so much more important to them than the health and well-being of their children that they may actually wish for bad things to happen to us, in what I think of as some sort of pre-schadenfreude. There is not any response we can make that will not then cause them to contradict their own earlier comment. The bar is always continually pushed farther and these arguments can never end. The hilarious part is, often we hear this crap before we can even tell our story. Sometimes they pretend to listen to us just to wait until they can talk at us some more. If you are the child of a Christian narcissist, they don’t really care about any choices you make for your life and happiness that do not correlate to their limited world-view.
WHAT IS LEFT UNSAID
Our society has largely given consent to their beliefs, so their religious delusions are protected by a bizarre social contract. It is the sacred cow we cannot tip over. Therefore we are not allowed to say anything back because then they would feel persecuted. What we are not allowed to say is the evidence you have provided for God, Jesus, Heaven and Hell is hearsay, subjective, rhetorical, and invalid. We are not allowed to say things like:
If you truly believe that Satan and demons are out to get you, and that a realm called hell actually exists, then you are having a profound delusion and you need serious mental health counseling. And by “counseling” I don’t mean by your pastor or someone in your church; I mean by an actual mental health professional. It only makes sense to believe in heaven and hell if you have been indoctrinated to believe in these things. You never would have come up with these beliefs on your own by observing the universe. You were sold a story which you learned to believe, most likely when you were too young to listen critically.
We are not allowed to say:
Please stop trying to manipulate me into believing something for which there is no convincing evidence. You were allowed to do this when I was a vulnerable child, but I am a strong adult now and your lack of boundaries in this area is completely inappropriate. You cannot give us our childhoods back. Instead of being ashamed of us for being true to ourselves, think about the precious childhoods you stole. I am not asking for your religious counsel, nor do I need your unsolicited advice. Can you not see that I am healthy and happy now? Shouldn’t this be more important to you than whichever fantasy realm you think I may end up in? Why can’t we live here on this earth together now, and just agree to disagree? Threatening us with hell does not work anymore because it sounds like a terrific reprieve from your character impairment. Your constant criticism makes it hard for us to like you. When you cannot separate the person from the Christianity, it is really hard for us to love the person but hate the religion <<< see what I did there?
If we could speak to them as freely as they speak to us, we would say:
Have you ever noticed how the Lord’s voice sounds exactly like your own? That is because it is you. When you pray or get a word from the Lord, you are only petitioning yourself, and answering yourself. The Lord is a figment of our cultural imagination that you have made real for yourself. He is only real when you believe in him, just like Santa Claus. When you pray for me, you do nothing to help us have a better relationship because you are praying for your desires not my needs. All you are doing is trying to control me via magic to make yourself feel better about your delusions. Mental healthcare is not your daily prayer session; that is just more of you talking to yourself. You need someone to talk back to you that does not actually live in your own head or agree with all your confirmation biases. Take a look at yourself in the mirror and see what we see: Jesus never fixed you, you are still as broken as the day you were ‘on your knees’. Our relationships can never be repaired as long as you keep trying to change me. We don’t need you to tell us you love us, we need you to act like you do.
When your parents are character impaired, they do not have a healthy respect for your boundaries. We can ask them to respect us as adults, and accept that we are still the same people, but we know that we cannot trust them to do this. We know we need to accept them, but we also know they will not accept us. A Christian parent with a character impairment cannot just agree to disagree. When the master of the universe is personally telling you on a daily basis that all your opinions are correct, then you don’t try to get along, you just continue your pattern of domination.
We cannot trust that if we leave our children alone with them that they will not try to indoctrinate our kids, and/or discredit our parenting. My own mother baptized my child at her house when he was a baby. I had casually mentioned that a family friend told me I need to schedule a baptism, and she said, “That is all right, I already did it.” This did not surprise me in the least. She also makes it a point to discuss Christianity whenever she is with them, and has even told them to lie to me about videos she has shown them (Which frankly she does not even need to do, because I discuss her children’s Christian indoctrination videos with my children in the same way I would discuss any other cartoon mythology. But seriously, why force my kids to watch videos they think are boring anyway, can’t you just put on something they actually like?). When I call her out on this behavior, she tells me that I cannot tell her what to do in her own house. She glosses over the moral error of telling them to lie by defending herself, saying this is who she is and she can’t change it—as if the need to tell others of her belief in the truth of Christianity is the central core of her personality. And she is right about that—if I cannot get her to respect my boundaries even in my own home, there is no way she would ever respect my parental boundaries in her home. So my kids don’t go there anymore. Getting to know my children as the individual human beings that they are is not as important to her as coercing them into her religion . . . and then teaching them to lie to me about it.
REFRIED APOLOGETICS: BEEN THERE, DONE THAT, THREW OUT THE BOOK
My mother blames my atheism on my reading atheist books. Even though I have a graduate degree in Biblical Studies from an Evangelical divinity school. She tells me I do not really understand the Bible, because of course you cannot use your brain to understand the Bible—the Holy Spirit has to give you the revelation. It is confusing to understand how this works. If this is the case, then what is the point of study or of even having a brain? It’s incredibly frustrating when a person understands something from hearing a story or reading a book but then tells you their spirit gave them the understanding. You’re not using your spirit, you are using your reasoning, as limited as that skill may be. You may be able to tell a regular atheist they do not understand your religion, although even then it is debatable without knowing the person. But we ex-Christians completely understand it. We understand the brand we were raised in, plus we also understand a lot of the other brands. Stop suffering under the pretense that we do not; it is insulting and arrogant.
She gives me books on apologetics that are nothing more than rhetorical word salad or poor re-workings of Aquinas or Augustine. It doesn’t matter that I have already studied better theologians and philosophers in my apologetics classes in grad school. She gives them to me in hopes that by reading them I will be convinced and return to the fold. She doesn’t want to discuss them with me, or hear any points I could possibly make about these books. She already agreed with the books before she read them, because the authors are Evangelical, the books have the pseudo-intellectual mask of intelligence, she bought them at the Christian bookstore, and the titles already told her atheists are wrong about everything. Confirmation bias is a very profitable publishing industry in the Christian world, but I trust Neil will tell you all about that.
I constantly prayed for understanding when I was in grad school. My biblical studies professors, who were remarkably intellectually honest, taught us not to come to the text with preconceived notions. They taught us not to infuse our studies with what we wanted the Bible to say, but rather to go to the text with an open mind in order to find out what it actually does say—on its own terms. I learned from this that theology is incredibly fluid, and that a person’s knowledge of God represents whatever she desires to believe about him. When people argue about theology on the internet, they are ultimately attempting to convince you to validate their identity.
My mother is deeply entrenched in her personality and refuses to accept that the only reason I am an atheist is because I went to seminary and I studied the Bible like a serious person, not an automaton. Sometimes I think the entire purpose of “being in the world and not of it” is to create drones to do the work of the church and to fund it. Plus we would not want anyone to be in the world, enjoy it and actually learn something. Clutch your pearls Pearl, she’s become an ATHEIST! It’s almost as if the goal of Christian indoctrination is to turn us into avatars of humans: perfect, smiling, living, factory-produced, cardboard cut-outs.
I worked so hard to remain a Christian too, even a liberal one. Like most ex-Christians, I did not want to be different from my entire family or turn my back on my whole culture and traditions. I did not want to be judged and maligned by people that I like and love. But I could no longer accept the misinformation that gets passed on as fact or tolerate cognitive dissonance in my life. There is no need to hold two competing ideas when the obvious answer is far simpler than the mysterious baffle gab used to confuse people back into believing. A Christian narcissist wants for us ex-Christians to apologize to them for no longer wanting to eat their sh** and call it chocolate pudding. That is why they are so vocal about such a small and disorganized minority (e.g. atheists, gays) and pretend that criticizing a man-made rhetorical religion is the same thing as persecuting a person.
My seminary studies gave me the answers no parent, pastor, or priest could ever honestly answer, and none of it was mysterious. It is an absolute travesty that the things scholars have known about the history of the Bible for hundreds of years have not been passed down to lay people (that alone could have saved me four years of higher ed), but that is a story for another day. Almost nothing Christians complicate with their baffle gab has to be so complicated.
I did not read any atheist literature until I already was one. I got there on my own, honestly and with integrity, and dammit it was f***ing BRAVE. So when she cannot accept my reasonable answers then she continues to push the bar and blame my atheist professors. My atheist professors at my conservative Evangelical div school, riiiiiighhht??!! It always has to be something on the outside of the family system that needs the blame. Trying to reason with a Christian narcissist has the same results as bashing your head against a brick wall.
WHERE DO WE GO?
How do you have impossible conversations with impossible people? If I knew the answer to that I’d be as rich as Tony Robbins. One time I was complaining to my Uncle Jim about how concerned I was for a family member’s medical state and their inability to make safe, reasonable choices. This was probably the best advice I have ever been given in my life, because I thought they were the problem. He said to me, “Deanna, the mistake you are making is you are trying to use reason and logic with people who do not use reason and logic.” Long pause . . . BAM! Mind blown. This produced a major paradigm shift in my thinking from that point on in my life.
My family of origin issues are not rooted in their Christianity or my atheism; that’s just one more reason among many for them to purposely misunderstand me. These dysfunctional problems were here long before, maybe even generations, and they can only be fixed by the persons who actually see them as issues. Which unfortunately means, some of my loved ones will continue the pattern of emotional abuse because they have allowed themselves to believe what they are doing is love.
Here is what I have learned: I can’t make people like me, not even the ones who are supposed to, like my Mom and my brother. I deserved my mother’s unconditional love as a child and she failed in her duty to provide that to me. As an adult I understand that she is incapable of loving me for who I am, or of respecting my boundaries, so I accept her as she is. Even if I did everything she wants me to do, it will never be enough to please her, or make her like me. So I’ve learned not to try.
I now surround myself with people who do love and validate me, and I work to end this cycle of emotional abuse for my kids. I have narcissistic fleas, and the best thing I can do for my kids is to kill those fleas when I see them creep up. Associating with family who encourages dysfunctional behavior doesn’t help me with that. At this point in my life, if someone can’t respect my healthy boundaries then they are someone I’m most likely not going to have a relationship with, or I will have as little contact as possible. There are no relationships I participate in that are based on fear, obligation, or guilt. It’s not worth sacrificing my health, or my sanity simply because blood is thicker than water. The reason it’s thicker is because of all the disease in it. You should surround yourself with fresh water. Don’t waste another minute of your life trying to please a narcissist (or change their mind about anything). Find healthy people who know how to love.
Deanna M. Boudov is a member of the International Brotherhood of Survivors of Christianity. She was raised half-Catholic, half-Evangelical, and 110% crazy in Central New York. She still lives in CNY with her husband Dave and their two children; who they are raising half-atheist, half-agnostic, and 110% awesome. In the future she hopes to have a career as a professional profanity consultant.