“Closets are for clothes, not for people.”
“You’re only in the closet because you’re too pretentious to publicly admit you don’t believe in God.”
“You’re putting your fear of rejection above your own beliefs.”
These are all things I’ve heard from open atheists since making my story public on this blog. I understand that most of those who say this are people who were once in the atheist closet and have had to come out and face their fears. For some, it was barely consequential. For some, relationships were destroyed.
When I say “come out” in terms of coming all the way out, I don’t mean coming out to friends at school or other students or people that I’m not close with. I don’t care if they know. It makes no difference to me. There is a thin line between my being in the closet and my being completely out, and that line is my mother. If everyone in the world knows but she doesn’t, I’m still in the closet; until the day that I confront her and tell her, I’ll be the Closet Atheist.
I think that the hardest thing to wrap your mind around as a reader is that I understand where my mother is coming from. I’ve lived in this world my whole life. It’s as if I have an insider’s view (Lutheran) and an outsider’s view (atheist) on this situation. I know what atheists look like to her, and how the word “atheist” has a different connotation to her than it does to me. Think of it this way: many evolutionists say that the reason why most anti-evolutionists don’t believe in/accept it is because they don’t know what it is. It’s the same way with my mother and atheism. She doesn’t really know what it is, she doesn’t accept it, and I’m not about to ask her what she thinks it is.
One thing I have decided is that when I tell her, instead of saying “Mom, I’m an atheist,” I should say “Mom, I don’t believe in God,” or “Mom, I’m not a Christian.” I have no idea what the word “atheist” means to her, and I don’t want to use it before my definition has been made clear. And it will be a sensitive and emotional conversation, thus…not the time for technical definitions.
If you’re me, an atheist is someone who doesn’t believe in God. If you’re my mom, it’s someone whose life has fallen apart. They’ve lost their way, they’re living in sin, they’re doing everything wrong.
I noticed this Sunday that a boy my age that grew up going to my church hasn’t come in years (I’m not very observant of the congregation). His parents are as religious as my mother is; the father is a church elder and the mother is in charge of VBS and the Christmas program every year. I asked my mother, “is he even a Christian anymore!?” (Note: if you’re trying to come out to a parent, this is actually a good idea. Test the waters, see how they respond to someone else you know being an atheist. My test did not have good results, as you shall see.) When we talked about it and she filled me in on his life, she told me how he’s lost the faith and his life is in shambles. He stopped coming to church, then he moved in with his girlfriend (a big sin, FYI), dropped out of school, started working at Golf Galaxy, broke up with his girlfriend, moved in with his parents, and still works at Golf Galaxy and doesn’t go to church or school.
She then used this piece of gossip to inform me that she differs from his parents in the fact that she wouldn’t let any of her children live under her roof without attending church. I would have been more disheartened if I hadn’t already known that; if it wasn’t a rule that I had to attend church, then what have I been getting up all these Sunday mornings for? (Aside from posting on here 😉 ) She then informed me that I should take this church-attending virtue that has been instilled in me and continue it for my whole life (even though she knows that I don’t attend church at college). Her exact words were “Without God, you’ll fall flat on your face. You know that right? So don’t try it. You need Him.” And I said, “I won’t… I don’t want to mess up my face or anything.” (This exchange might give you a hint of how miserably terrible I am at faith-related conversations)
There have been different times when I’ve wondered why she hasn’t picked up from my religiously apathetic act that I’m not a Christian like she and my older sisters are. I realized during this conversation last Sunday that she too strongly equates Christianity with goodness, success, and church attendance to be able to separate them without leaving a mess. I’m a good, nice person, I attend college and don’t live with my boyfriend, and I attend church. Even if I don’t sing along to the hymns, read my bible, or wear the cross necklace I got for my confirmation, she has no reason to suspect that I’m an atheist, because atheists are mean, they drop out of college, and they hate Christians.
Overall, it is a very disheartening and unfortunate situation for everyone involved. I don’t want to portray my mother as a bigot or having conditional love on my blog, although I know it often seems that I do this. It’s because we have no visible rift in real life, and in my writing is the only outlet for these negative, suppressed feelings. If I didn’t love her and hold her opinion higher than anyone else’s, then this wouldn’t matter and I wouldn’t worry about it.
That being said, it is a sad situation for her as well. You’ll only understand it if you put yourself in her shoes. Your child isn’t just telling you that she doesn’t share your beliefs, but her eternal life will be cut short, she is incapable of doing any good, and she has turned her back on your way of life, not to mention she has been lying to you since childhood. She is not who you thought she was. She is not the good Christian girl you raised. You’ve failed to pass your faith onto her, even though you have tried so hard for so many years, and now it’s out of your control. Your heart is broken.
I don’t feel bad for being an atheist. I do, of course, understand that you can’t choose what you do or do not believe, and you can’t choose who you are. What I feel bad for is letting my mother down and making her feel the way I just described. The alternative is never telling her, which would greatly restrict my life, but it would be just as despicable to live a lie forever.
This is one of the most precious relationships in my life, and if it were destroyed by my coming out, then both or our lives would change drastically for the worst. On the other hand, our relationship is not in its fullest, most honest state; there is a wall between us that only one of us is fully aware of. Whatever effect my coming out has, it would at least, and at last, tear down this wall so that what of her love is left, she can know is for my true self and not for my facade.