My husband got off the phone with his mom. We rarely see his mom because we’re in the Midwest and she’s in California. I asked how the call was. He stared blankly. “My mom is concerned with what we’re teaching *Goober about religion.”
“What? What did you tell her?”
“I explained that I’m a believer, that you’re an atheist and we’re raising Goober to make her own choices. You know, I told her we’re going to educate her on different world religions and what we personally believe. Then she said she was worried we’re teaching her that god doesn’t exist. I think she genuinely believes you and Goober are going to hell.”
At this point, I was indignant, but not surprised. Ever since my MIL married a conservative Southern Baptist man a couple years ago, she’s been extremely vocal about her newfound salvation and political views. Only recently did she stop sending me cheesy/alarmist chain emails, which I think was in response to a passive aggressive Facebook status I posted about “knowing your audience” when you spam your friends and family.
I won’t lie – I’m happy that my MIL lives far away, because I’m not sure how I would deal with our differences if she were a regular part of our lives. It’s not that I hate religious people, or that I was deeply wronged by some Christian pervert in the past, or that I’m on a crusade to convert believers into heathens like me. I don’t dislike my MIL. She’s boisterous, a little over-the-top, but she’s not a bad person. And, like so many other people, she literally believes that if Goober doesn’t accept Jesus Christ into her soul that she’s going to burn in hell. So I get that her intentions are good, and that she’s seriously concerned about my daughter’s fate, and my own.
It’s just that I’m tired. I am so, so, so fucking tired of this sort of thing.
Religion has drawn an invisible wedge between me and my own mother, me and everyone on my mom’s side of the family, and many people on my dad’s side of the family. I come from a long line of Southern Baptists, many of them loving, many of them bigots. It’s not uncommon for my relatives to proselytize at family reunions, or to tell stories of the lost souls they’re trying to convert. Everything good that happens involves the word “blessed.” Everything bad invokes a prayer.
Both of my grandfathers have stood up and made forceful religious statements in waiting rooms and other public places. It’s abrasive, it’s inconsiderate and it does nothing to warm the hearts of the very people they’re trying to reach. Yet, as a Southern Baptist, as a Christian who takes The Great Commission seriously, it’s what you’re supposed to do.
I know from experience that when I’m at odds with a friend or family member regarding something this fundamental, there is no convincing either of us to change. But if my MIL were to listen, and promise that just for one moment she could entertain the idea that maybe, just maybe, her Southern Baptist interpretation of the meaning of life doesn’t paint the ENTIRE, ABSOLUTE picture of why we’re here and what happens after we die—here is what I would tell her.
I’m an atheist. I am not a Satanist, or a Hedonist, or a Nudist, or any of those other undesirable “ists” that people like to interpret as synonyms with disbelief in god. My lack of belief in god is no more harmful to me or those around me than a Christian’s lack of belief in Zeus. That’s my “instant dinner” explanation – if you want to hear it, I can give you the full, unabridged version. We can delve into Biblical specifics. We can delve into science. We can talk about how both can coexist. I know enough from my college education, my personal studies and my introspection to discuss the big and small issues from different angles. But the gist is this: I strive to be kind, to take responsibility for my mistakes and to model self-love and love of others. That’s my choice. That’s my life, it is good and beautiful, and deity is unessential to me.
I want the opportunity to discuss this with my MIL, rationally, like adults. I enjoy it. Almost every conversation I’ve had with those who believe in god, provided that we get to have the conversation, has involved my finding some point upon which we can agree. And most conversations I have with fellow atheists actually involve my defending Christianity, because I was raised in a smart Presbyterian church that gave me a lifelong respect of Christians who respect their brains enough to put some thought into why they believe in god. My Christian dad, who I deeply respect, says it well, “Believe what you want, but for god’s sake, think it through first.”
I see both sides. I enjoy taking on different perspectives and hashing them out. This is why I have wonderful, interesting friendships with Christian people.
I have a very difficult time believing that this is a conversation I could ever have with my MIL, because everything I’ve learned in my experience about Southern Baptists indicates that the penultimate essence of their belief system, the very premise, is all-or-nothing. No gray areas. Do this, go to heaven. Do this, go to hell. Discussing other possibilities with a Southern Baptist is as irrational and silly as explaining to a tree that it should pick itself up and move to a different location because the view is better.
Then again, maybe I’m wrong. Maybe, like me, my MIL is capable of seeing both sides, and has made her decision from a place of intuition and feeling combined with reason.
But I seriously fucking doubt it.
*Obviously, my daughter is not named Goober, but then again, you never know what we crazy atheists might do to ruin our children.