I’ve been an atheist for over half a decade now, but I still haven’t told my evangelical mother. Oh, I’ve told her that I attend a UU church, and she knows I don’t believe in young earth creationism or read the Bible every day the way she does. But I’ve never actually told her I’m an atheist. I’m in a bit of a different position than most—I grew up as the oldest of a large evangelical homeschooling family, and half a dozen of my siblings are still under 18. My ability to see my siblings is in some sense contingent on my not rocking the boat further than I already have. It’s an unspoken agreement of sorts.
I knew when I had children myself that it was a dangerous undertaking. After all, children don’t always have a filter, and I didn’t want one of my children to accidentally break the news that mommy and daddy don’t believe in God. That wouldn’t be fair to anyone involved, least of all the unsuspecting kid. I knew it would be a few years before this was an issue, but, well, my kids are three and six now, so yes, it’s an issue.
For several years now—since she was around four—Sally has toyed around with a variety of ideas and beliefs. At one point she declared herself a devotee of Persephone, and I found myself reading her every book the library had on the goddess. At another point she spoke of believing of Jesus, using language I knew she must have picked up in my parents’ home. But now she has declared herself an atheist. I don’t know if this is but one step on a longer journey or if this is where she’ll stay, but it’s certainly where she’s at right now.
“Mom, we need to tell Grandma that God is fake,” she told me last week out of the blue.
“Why?” I asked.
“Because she should want to know the truth!” she exclaimed.
I did not see that one coming. I’m an atheist, but I’m not an anti-theist. I’ve introduced Sally to a variety of religious ideas and traditions through books, museums, and our UU church. I’ve always been careful to draw attention to points where people disagree, and I’ve tried not to tell her what to believe. Yes, I push her to think critically, but I’d forgotten how simple the world can appear when you’re six—it’s really not surprising she thinks she could announce to her grandmother that God isn’t real and have her grandmother respond by saying “oh, I hadn’t realized!”
This launched into a conversation about heaven and hell, because it was the only way I could think to explain to Sally how strongly her grandmother feels about what people believe. Sally was horrified by the idea that someone would base salvation on beliefs rather than on actions. Sally’s highest value, at the moment, is kindness. During a recent conversation about Disney princesses, she told me that the most important thing about a person was not whether they were pretty but rather whether they were kind.
“You mean if grandma knew that I don’t believe in God, she would think I am going to hell?” Sally asked finally, almost incredulously.
“Yes,” I told her.
“Wow,” she responded. “That’s messed up.”
Recently I’ve been telling her Bible stories. She loves hearing them and keeps asking for more, partly because some of them are genuinely interesting stories for those who haven’t heard them, and partly, I think, because she is interested in learning about various cultures and religions. I mention it here because “that’s messed up” is a phrase that has come up in that context too. I hadn’t realized until recently just how not-for-kids many of those stories are. I tried to tell the story of Potiphar and his wife and Joseph without gloss over the whole seduction and false rape accusation bit, but she refused to believe that Potiphar would put Joseph without reason, so I told the whole thing. “That couple is messed up,” she concluded with some horror.
Because I want my daughter to come away with a more than a superficial understanding of others’ beliefs and cultures, I explained to her that some Christians, like her grandmother, believe those stories actually happened the way they are written in the Bible while other Christians don’t think that it matters whether they happened like that or not, because the stories themselves are important. I reminded her about how we use story in our culture, and then she started quizzing me on what we can learn from each of the Bible stories I had told her, and it turns out that some of those stories are not as easy to squeeze meaning out of as I’d thought. I may need to track down a progressive Christian children’s Bible story book for that one, but I rather wonder if it would edit out some of the more gory details in an unsatisfying way.
Anyway, to get back to the earlier discussion, I explained to Sally that I hadn’t actually told her grandmother that I don’t believe in God.
“I guess I just don’t see the point,” I said. “I mean, what would be the point in telling her?”
“To make her sad,” Sally said thoughtfully.
I explained to Sally that sometimes things we do or believe will make others sad and that we can’t always control that and it’s not our fault. I explained that it’s not reasonable for her grandmother to expect her children to share her beliefs. I didn’t want her thinking that it’s her responsibility to constantly keep those around her from feeling sad. It’s not. But, I told her, we do get to choose how open we want to be with any given individual about what we believe or think.
And now I’m sitting here, typing all of this up, and I’m honestly not sure I’ve made the right decisions. Perhaps it would have been better to simply tell my mother, years ago, that I don’t believe in God but that I don’t want to get into it with her. It’s been long enough, now, that I don’t even know how I would go about telling her. Is choosing not to tell her a part of me setting my own boundaries, or is it me being a coward?
And to anyone who thinks I’m making a big deal out of nothing, let me remind you that I have six siblings under 18 and I’d very much like to retain access to them and be able to build relationship with them. It’s not like I have to hide who I am completely around them. I am open with them about many—nay, most—of my beliefs. I’ve mentioned my lesbian friend who is raising a son with her partner. I’ve encouraged my sisters to see homemaking as simply one option among many. I’ve pointed out that things like effective birth control and subsidized childcare are the most effective ways to cut the abortion rate. They know I don’t spank my children or expect immediate obedience. Still, when I’m around my minor siblings I do have to walk a line between being who I am and being too subversive.
When I told my parents nearly a decade ago that I was no longer a young earth creationist—that I now believed that God created the world via evolution—they very nearly cut off my access to my younger siblings. Now maybe things are different enough now that they wouldn’t do that if they knew that I don’t believe in God, but we’ve finally achieved a sort of equilibrium and I’d hate to upset it.
I wonder sometimes if my mother already knows that I don’t believe in God but is pushing that knowledge away because the truth is too painful. It would be a very my mother kind of thing to do. In some ways, what we have is a don’t ask/don’t tell policy. She may know that I don’t believe in God, or at least suspect as much, but as long as I don’t tell her she doesn’t have to fully acknowledge it, even to herself.
For more on this topic, see my earlier post, An Atheist Parent, An Evangelical Grandmother, and a Six-Year-Old Girl.