Saturday, July 23, 2005

A Conversation with My Mother

    This morning, while I was over at Atheist Exposed reading about Shirley's conversations with her coworkers about her coming out as an atheist, I realized that the out of all the posts that I read on atheist blogs, I enjoy the accounts of religious discussions the most of all. In that spirit, I'd like to tell you about a phone conversation I had with my mother on Wednesday.

    She called me in the middle of the week to discuss my plans for the weekend and also about my plans for moving out to California next week. We talked about that a little bit and then she began talking about how she might start to read the Harry Potter books. While I definitely haven't read them, I told her that people of all ages seem to enjoy them and if that's what she wants to do, then she should. Her tone of voice then drastically changed to a much more soft, I guess comforting tone, and she said "have you read the book The Five People You Meet in Heaven?". I thought to myself "oh shit, not again". I've talked to her about my atheism before, and without attacking her beliefs directly, just told her that I can't believe in something that doesn't have evidence for it. I didn't feel the need to crush her religiousness. In fact, in many respects I don't want to. She's not a fundamentalist, my parents don't go to church and throw their money away, and they voted Democrat in the last election. They aren't part of the Christian Right mob. In addition, my mom lost her mother when she was in her early 20s and from what she's told me, it means a lot for her to be able to see her mom in heaven again. Even if it would be better for her in the long run, it would hurt me too much to effectively "kill" her mother in her mind all over again. But on the other side of the argument, I can't support religion when it has really put mankind's future in jeopardy. Back to Wednesday. I hoped to simply dismiss this conversation by simply saying "oh no, I think that'd be a bit too much for me", hoping she'd understand and we could just move on to something else. But I think she wanted to talk about it, so she continued:

Mom: What do you mean, too much?
Me: Just too religious. Would you read a book called The Five People You Meet on the River of Styx?
Mom: *slight laughter* So you're a complete atheist?
Me: Well yeah mom, I don't know how I could only partly one.
Mom: Well I think, someday, when you get older perhaps, you'll change your mind.
Me: No no, I really don't think so. When I lose someone that I love very closely, it's going to hurt like hell, but I really don't think I could ever fall back to religion again.
Mom: It's not just loss that could prompt it, sometimes we just need to believe in something greater than ourselves.

    Now I kind of lost it here. That saying is probably the thing that makes me the most mad when I hear Christians talk, as if atheists are purely egotistical, self-centered maniacs. What's more egotistical than believing that the creator of the entire universe cares about your petty, personal problems, loves you, and wants to talk to you personally. I guess I was a little too rattled to say this, so I just started talking steam of consciousness like.

Me: Oh my god, I hate when people say that. Atheists are such more likely to care about other human beings and their happiness in life because we realize that we only have one life, and we want everyone to be able to enjoy that life. Christians often say that you can't be moral if you don't believe in God. But I think if you do what's "right" because you want to receive eternal pleasures and avoid eternal punishment, you are being bribed and are not truly being a good person. Tom (as I'll call him, a young, extremely spoiled cousin of mine) gets video games if he listens to his mom and takes his daily shower. Do we think that he's a "good boy" because of this, or do we realize that he's only doing what his mother says because he's acting in his own self-interest. It's the same with religion.

Mom: *again a little laughter* (I knew she would like my reference to my cousin). Well yeah, but people do what's right because they know that it's right, not because of religious reasons I think.

Me: (satisfied with this answer, I tried to give her an "out" in the conversation so it could end, or the best "out" I could muster, which wasn't very good) I'm glad you realize that. I guess if you don't let religion affect your life too much and don't get too crazy with it, it doesn't hurt you much.

    She then started talking about some other religious thing, and clearly it wasn't too memorable. She then started talking about what God "wanted", and how "He felt". Now, it might be due to a lack of maturity on my part, maybe it's just I have so much despise for religion built up in me, or maybe it's because I'm discussing it with family and not simply with friends, but I wasn't able to let this simply go without saying something.

Me: Please mom, don't talk to me about that kind of stuff. It's so strange for me when I don't even believe a god exists for someone to tell me that they know he exists, how he feels about things, which mortals he's slept with, who his son, etc. Furthermore, (she used a lot of references to "He") I don't see why god would be masculine. What purpose does it serve him to be a male? Are there female gods that he needs to attract? (some laughter here) If not, wouldn't he be completely confused about his anatomy which apparently serves no purpose? Gender seems to only play a role in reproduction, so unless he reproduces, I don't think it makes sense for him to be a male. Except for that fact that he was created by a male-dominant society.

     Anyway, she then seemed to be a little desperate and was grabbing at stuff, saying things like "well we know a lot about him when he lived here on the earth". I was dumbfounded, and made some sort of comment about how there's just as much proof for that as there is for unicorns.

    Now during this whole conversation, I noticed that my voice was kind of shaky. I felt that I was torn between attacking something that I hate and protecting my mother. I wanted to explain why I was an atheist, and make her understand that I had good reasons to be one. But after every comment I was afraid that I would make her very sad, and I really didn't want to do that. So I was incredibly happy to end the conversation with her saying "well, I guess we'll have to agree to disagree". I said "yep" and we changed the subject. The rest of the conversation went on normal as always, with really no indication that we had just had a deep argument. I was happy that it ended seemingly well, but later that night I felt bad for losing my cool. I'm pretty good at discussing religion with people that I'm not especially close to, but when I'm talking to someone whose feelings I care about and I'm worried about hurting them, I'm clearly not as good. I hope that, if I do have to talk to her about it again, I act with a little bit better composure.

17 comments:

worldcitizen said...

Wow, this is an amazing post! Very personal, thanks for sharing.

We've all been there at one time or another. It sounds like you did fine, not that you lost your cool or anything. You made your points, good ones, as strongly as you could without letting the conversation get destructive.

I think personal talks like this, even when they don't seem to convince anyone of anything, are hugely important because they plant some thought-seeds that may grow later based on new experience. And in this case you found common ground--that people have an inherent sense of right and wrong that doesn't depend on religion.

My conversations with my mother don't go quite like this. My atheism's not a problem for her, since God's not a concept that she bothers with very much. She thinks instead that Earth was colonized by space aliens. LOL!

Rick said...

Very cool. Though I always tend to disagree with the small thing you said at the very end, and that was an issue I mde clear to my whole family (who btw is quite cool about my atheism now) -

"but when I'm talking to someone whose feelings I care about and I'm worried about hurting them"

I see this as a double standard used by the theists to say that atheists should be considerate about sentiments of otehrs. But I can't for any reason see why these people get scott free when they talk about religion even after you told them you're an atheist. Quid pro quo.

I won't read a verse to please my dying grandma until she tells me that its all just symbolic. I can't imagine people saying, "Oh, but that would break her/his heart if you talked that way about god", as if the heart of an atheist is a punching bag where you can shove in as much god as possible.

It was a grim confrontation I had with my entire family, but now they know exactly where their rights end and mine begin and vice versa.

Thanks for sharing the conversation. cheer up!

S. Setterbo said...

That was a great conversation with your mother. Keep up the "conversations"!.

Thank you for sharing. Shirley

Anonymous said...

You say "Christians often say that you can't be moral if you don't believe in God. But I think if you do what's "right" because you want to receive eternal pleasures and avoid eternal punishment, you are being bribed and are not truly being a good person."

I am a Christian and agree with this statement. An athiest can be indeed be "moral" (anlthough unsaved) and insincere good works are meaningless (although they may accidently help someone).

However, the question is not who has the inside track on morality, but "what is the truth?" Christianity is about discovering and living your life in accordance to the will of God. Thinking Christianity is merely about being a "good person" is completely off track. On the other hand, if you live your life in accordance with God's will, not only will you be saved, but you also will tend (subject to your own failings) to lead a moral life, as a byproduct of your lifeview.


John Lyon
Oak Park, CA

Delta said...

She thinks instead that Earth was colonized by space aliens. LOL!

Wow, whenever you were being raised did those beliefs hold any sway over you because of her influence?

I think personal talks like this, even when they don't seem to convince anyone of anything, are hugely important because they plant some thought-seeds that may grow later based on new experience

For sure. One of the long-term goals I have with being pretty upfront with this issue is that I want to avoid my parents, in their old age, spending excessive time in churches and blowing money on religion when they could be enjoying the last part of their life and traveling the world. A lot of people get more religious with age, and I hope to reach out to them before they become "out-of-reach".

I see this as a double standard used by the theists to say that atheists should be considerate about sentiments of others

You're definitely right that is basically the atmosphere we live in today. Anyone can question, even ridicule, atheism, while it's completely rude to question any other opinions. That's definitely a problem and needs to be changed. I really wouldn't have been too worried about a christian's reaction if she hadn't been my mother. And I didn't gave her any reason to suspect that she was correct.

I am a Christian and agree with this statement. An athiest can be indeed be "moral" (anlthough unsaved)

I'm glad you agree. I'm okay being unsaved though.

However, the question is not who has the inside track on morality, but "what is the truth?"

I totally agree that the issue of morality is definitely subordinate to whether or not any of it is true.

if you live your life in accordance with God's will

God's will? Giving us freewill, but then punishing us if we don't follow his will and bestowing great rewards on us if we do doesn't sound too free to me. Sounds more like "paidfordearlywill". If a parent said to their child, "sure, do whatever you want today, but if you don't cut the grass I'm going to torture you for eternity", I wouldn't say they had too much freewill. If the punishment for not obeying god's will is so extreme, I'd much rather him take away my ability to choose so that I don't accidentely condemn myself to eternal punishment.

On the other hand, if you live your life in accordance with God's will, not only will you be saved, but you also will tend (subject to your own failings) to lead a moral life, as a byproduct of your lifeview

I don't agree. If you follow the advice that many churches give today, you will focus a lot of your attention on issues that deeply harm humanity and cause suffering and deaths, e.g. abstinence education, anti-research, etc. Thanks for your input though John. I must say it is unusual for an anonymous poster to put down their real name and location =)


Thanks for the comments and support everyone =)

John Lyon said...

"I'd much rather him take away my ability to choose so that I don't accidentely condemn myself to eternal punishment."

You may prefer it, but that circumstance was lost when mankind chose "truth and knowledge" and free will (which, by the way, doesn't mean there aren't consequences).

I don't agree. If you follow the advice that many churches give today, you will focus a lot of your attention on issues that deeply harm humanity and cause suffering and deaths, e.g. abstinence education, anti-research, etc.

I always separate the will of God from religion, which is an imperfect institution of man (although the examples you give are certainly debatable). I'm sure there are athiests, or more the point, teachers of atheism, that one could find fault with as well.

Thanks for your input though John. I must say it is unusual for an anonymous poster to put down their real name and location =)

I couldn't rememeber my log-in name.

John Lyon
Oak Park

Delta said...

You may prefer it, but that circumstance was lost when mankind chose "truth and knowledge" and free will

Yeah, thanks ALOT Eve. Too bad god didn't let us decide this democratically, or at least didn't create us in a way which he knew beforehand would result in this outcome.

I always separate the will of God from religion, which is an imperfect institution of man

Well, that's definitely true. But then, how do you find out the will of God? Reading the bible? That would seemingly be imperfect as well, because there are different interpretations. And how would you know which side of a contradiction to chose? It'd also seem to be that you'd also have to say it was an imperfect creation of man because we know that more than a few things contained in the bible were just not true. And of course, I think direct contact would simply reveal what your will was.

I'm sure there are athiests, or more the point, teachers of atheism, that one could find fault with as well

Oh for sure, I wouldn't blindly approve of any particular atheist's views.

I couldn't rememeber my log-in name

Ahh, I see.

John Lyon said...

Well, that's definitely true. But then, how do you find out the will of God? Reading the bible? That would seemingly be imperfect as well, because there are different interpretations.

Not on the significant points, such as "Is there a God?"

And how would you know which side of a contradiction to chose? It'd also seem to be that you'd also have to say it was an imperfect creation of man because we know that more than a few things contained in the bible were just not true.

Even if I were to concede that man had recorded contraditions and errors in the Bible (which I don't), this would not affect the fundamental question of whether there is a God. You're an atheist, which means you think there was no "first cause" to create the universe, for example (unless you think the universe has existed forever). Even the effect of the Big Bang needed a cause.

You have some very good books listed in your profile. Try adding "The Case for Creation" by Lee Strobel (not a classic like the others, but very pertinent). Oh, and to answer your question, you have to keep asking for it to be revealed to you. You can read about the big picture in the Bible, but God's plan is unique for each individual. Personally, it took me over 40 years to finally learn this and to start paying attention.

Delta said...

Not on the significant points, such as "Is there a God?"

Well no, but it's hard to determine god's will from whether the book says he exists or not.

Even the effect of the Big Bang needed a cause

Christians love to talk about how everything needs a cause. Well, why
doesn't god need a cause? It seems like a much larger assumption to
assume that an omnipotent, omnibenevolent, omniscient god could be created from nothing than simply some particles and energy. However,
I don't really suspect that the Big Bang is causeless, scientists just
don't know enough yet. Quantum mechanics has shown us that the world works in ways that don't agree with our intuition, so I don't think
it's really productive for non-scientists to speculate on theoretical physics endeavors.

Try adding "The Case for Creation" by Lee Strobel (not a classic like the others, but very pertinent)

I haven't read that book, but I've been down that road trying to find
a way that god could exist, but failed. Once you become an atheist, a lot of things make more sense. It becomes very obvious that christianity (all religions for that matter) are simply made up and adapted from earlier beliefs. So I feel that I would just be wasting my time. Feel free to bring any argument that you think is good here though.

Personally, it took me over 40 years to finally learn this and to
start paying attention


I'm honestly glad that you had a good portion of your life where you
didn't dedicate yourself to this.

John Lyon said...

Christians love to talk about how everything needs a cause.

Gee whiz, they do? I sort of think scientists do too. This is a meaningless response - are you serious about these questions?

Well, why doesn't god need a cause?

You're asking why doesn't the original, creating force in the universe need a cause? Go ask one of your professors that question and get laughed out of the room. Original. Original.

It seems like a much larger assumption to assume that an omnipotent, omnibenevolent, omniscient god could be created from nothing than simply some particles and energy.

Nice vocabulary, but who assumed that? The original, creating force of the universe makes particles and energy, not the other way around.

However,I don't really suspect that the Big Bang is causeless

You suspect? Most scientists are much more certain than that. The only other option is that the universe has existed forever, which very few believe. You say science will explain the cause some day. Well, until that's the case, you're the one making big assumptions. Why should you assume that a method that works in four dimensions can explain the force that created those dimensions? Pure dogma.

I haven't read that book, but I've been down that road trying to find a way that god could exist, but failed.

How about reading the book and responding? You are no where near understanding these things, my friend. Young people always like to feel smarter than their parents, which means in 20 years or so you'll be the idiot.

Good luck to you.

Delta said...

Ooo soo much anger!

You're asking why doesn't the original, creating force in the universe need a cause? Go ask one of your professors that question and get laughed out of the room. Original. Original.

Oh I see, BRILLIANT. So you throw the adjective "original" onto it and that makes it not need a cause! So let's see, original matter and original energy. Original. Original. Go get laughed out of a room, dumbass.

You say science will explain the cause some day. Well, until that's the case, you're the one making big assumptions

You're same type who said that angels were the reason it rained because scientists of the day didn't know yet.

How about reading the book and responding? You are no where near understanding these things, my friend. Young people always like to feel smarter than their parents, which means in 20 years or so you'll be the idiot

Yeah, because no one could be smarter and figure things out before you could huh?

John Lyon said...

Yes, God would be the original cause that created the universe, which explains the things that science has not (which is what we were talking about). I assumed we were talking at a certain level, without starting out with definitions. Of course, my assumption leaves lots of wiggle room, if desired.

You respond to my accusation of an unproven belief that science will explain all by attributing something to me because of my "type?" How about supporting your belief in some way?

Sigh, there are no responses or reasons here, only big words and name-calling. You're not a searcher of truth. Save your sad stories about your poor, misguided mother - talk about irony!

John Lyon said...

PS: I do apologize for getting a little hot under the collar. One of my many faults. I'm off now for a 3-day motorcycle ride through Yosemite, which will certainly put me in a better mood. Good luck.

Brent Rasmussen said...

Linked here:

http://brentrasmussen.com/log/convo_with_deltas_mother

Delta said...

John, it's one thing to explain how something happened, it's another to have evidence for it actually being true. I can say that the earth goes around the sun because it is tied with a string, and yes, that explains it, but definitely doesn't make it true. Hope your motorcycle ride was relaxing, I'm currently a little bit stressed out from my move to California (all my stuff is still in boxes).

And thanks Brent =)

John Lyon said...

Delta-

Sorry about the delayed response - in a much better mood now.

I guess that's where our conversation hits a deadend. There is no (scientific) evidence that can be provided for a belief that is outside the realm of science. I believe this would be called a "Catch-22."

I also believe in science, by the way, to the extent things have been proven by those methods. I don't assume, however, that science will explain all things.

Sorry again for losing my civil tone. It was a response to being typecast, but I should have shown better control.

Best, John

franky said...

Good post. I know how it feels on that one. I had a similar encounter with a sister of mine where she was literally crying (and at that point I was only agnostic).