Heartbroken Atheist Mama

Heartbroken Atheist Mama March 4, 2013

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 .

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