She still loves me. There was no yelling. It went much better than I feared.
It all started Sunday during lunch. We went to Panera and had a really good conversation about Obama, health care, and the silly birthers. Even though she's evangelical and voted for McCain she supports what Obama is doing and doesn't like how he is being demonized.
She asked me if I wanted to see a concert at her church but it was happening at the same time I planned to call my wife, who is away visiting family. This got us on the subject of church and I thought I would be sly and see how much she really paid attention to the bible. As we were leaving I told her for her bible study today she should see what day each of the gospels says Jesus died on.
Well, after a few emails back and forth she came to the conclusion that while she didn't understand why John puts Jesus' death on the day before Passover, since the other 3 agree that it was on Passover then that's when he died. She called me to joke that at least this got me to read the bible and that's when our conversation started down a path that I wouldn't have guessed.
As I've mentioned before I didn't want my mom to know my lack of belief because I didn't want her to be sad or upset thinking I was going to hell. And while I never portray myself as a believer to her I never try to rock the boat much when we discuss religion. But she's always talking about the church. Her life revolves around the church. She's always suggesting I go to church with her. I used to go with her sometimes, like on Easter, but not anymore. So this conversation was just like any other but now she was telling me I really should read the bible again. I told her jokingly that if I read the bible then she has to read about evolution. I've never been shy about discussing science around her and she's adamant that evolution is not true and the bible is true.
Oh, no, she was not going to read about evolution. She said it sounded like I was being brainwashed by the scientists, to which I thought "you think I'm the one who's brainwashed." But instead I tried to explain some of the simple misconceptions about it and suggested that if she were willing we could sit down and I could go over it more with her. It was at this point that she felt compelled to tell me (I'm paraphrasing) "I know you don't want to hear this, but if I die right now God will hold me accountable because I'm supposed to spread his word. I know you were saved when you were younger but you really need to think about reading the bible and going up to the alter and offering your heart to Jesus. Why won't you do that? What would you do if you died right now and you were brought before God, what would you say to him? When he asks you why he should let you into Heaven what would you say to him?"
I said, "The sarcastic person in me would ask him why I would want to go to his Heaven." Ooh. Maybe I shouldn't have said that but she's backing me into a corner.
She said "What? You would rather go to Hell?"
I told her I didn't believe in hell. I guess I thought that was an easy one not to believe in. She told me hell was certainly real. I said, "Imagine sticking your hand in boiling water, just for a second. Now imagine that agony stretched over minutes and hours and years, trillions of years. Eternity? You're telling me that people who will suffer an eternity like that?"
She said, "If they don't believe Jesus died for their sins, yes."
I said, "It seems a bit harsh doesn't it? And if Jesus died for our sins and we were punished for our sins then why are we still being punished? Why is there so much suffering in the world?"
"You can't think about that, you have to read the bible and open you heart to Him."
At this point I felt like I was backed into a corner. I said "Mom, I just have a hard time dealing with the idea that God is up there while people suffer down here and he's not willing to do anything about it."
(I've been listening to Bart Ehrman's "God's Problem" and after hearing part of a transcript from the Nuremberg trials I was sickened by the thought of someone throwing a live child into an oven. All the killing of the holocaust is bad enough but I had never heard they had done this sort of thing. One of the witnesses said you could hear the children screaming across the camp.)
I said "Mom, where was God when those innocent children were being burned alive by the Nazis? What did those children ever do wrong, how did they sin?"
At this point I was sobbing. I get very emotional when I hear about children being hurt and it all just poured out of me. A said through my sobs "I'm sorry, I just can't believe in a God that would let that happen. I never wanted to have this conversation with you. I never wanted to upset you. I never wanted you to worry that I was going to Hell but I just can't bring myself to believe in a God that would let something like that happen. I'm sorry but I just don't believe in God."
She said, "I understand. I figured you didn't. Maybe someday you will believe again."
I said, "At this point I don't see how. You want me to go to an alter and accept Jesus into my heart, but if there really is a Jesus and I did that he would see I wasn't sincere and I was only doing it to make other people think something about me. I can't be dishonest like that. Unless God reveals himself to me in person I just don't see how I can believe in him again. I've tried to believe. This has been a long process. It may have been a spur of the moment decision when I was 19 to be saved but it has taken me many years to get to this point. The more I open my eyes and look at the world the less I believe in God."
There was some more back and forth that I don't quite remember. I felt compelled to assure her that just because I was an atheist it didn't mean I was a devil worshiper or something like that. I explained that if anything I was a humanist and I just wanted people to treat each other nicely. I ended the phone call saying I loved her and if she were in the room I would hug her. She said she loved me too.
She called back later and said that she had been praying about this and God revealed this scripture to her:
Acts 16:31 And they said, Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved, and thy house.She said "So because I believe, you and your brother will be saved also." It's a good thing you can justify just about anything with the bible, she's already put up the defense against thinking I will burn in hell.
As I was telling my wife what had happened it occurred to me that she had said she already thought I didn't believe. It all made sense. She was always trying to get me to go to church or to read the bible. She was always trying to teach me something from the bible and thought that I was "brainwashed by the scientists." All of my worries all along were for nothing, she had already suspected. And my brother, too. I don't talk about religion with him but he's more outspoken than I am, especially regarding social issues, so I'm sure she thinks he doesn't believe, either. (I honestly don't know what he believes.)
As I'm typing this I feel a weight lifting off my shoulders. It felt bad not being able to speak my mind. I told my mom during our talk "I don't want my doubt to influence you. That's why I've kept my mouth shut when we talk about religion. I see how happy the church makes you and I don't want to be the one to take that away from you."
But I also see how fearful the church makes her. I wish I could take that fear away. I explained to her how much at peace I had become just accepting that the world is chaotic. I wish I could show her that it is OK to doubt. But I won't force my lack of belief on her. Nor will I back down now in an argument. If she pushes me on an issue I will push back...but nicely... ;-)