I didn’t plan to come out on January 3rd, 2018. It was supposed to happen a year from now. I’d be married and living in my own house with my husband; the wedding would be out of the way after I patiently waited until arriving at adulthood unscathed. There would be a gradual and logical buildup: first I tell my younger sister, then my older sisters and their husbands, and finally my mother. I would take my husband to my mother’s house, we would tell her together, and we would leave her to process the news without us there.
I didn’t come out because of emotions, but it was a means to an end, and it was definitely not planned. I’m on my winter break from college, living at my mom’s house with a lot of restrictions. Her discovery last summer that I’d been having premarital sex was coming up again and starting numerous concerned conversations and even arguments. I didn’t know if coming out now would solve anything, but I couldn’t see hiding my atheism as making anything better, only worse. As someone once commented on one of my posts, coming out is unexpected. It isn’t always something you’ve planned out, but sometimes it is something that needs to be said in order to defend your integrity in the moment.
The moment was when we were fighting about my lack of freedom to stay alone at our house for one night in the case that I would invite over my fiance and there was the chance that we could be together unsupervised. I was furious about how unfair it was, but I knew there was no way I would win, so instead of saying anything I would regret, I bit my tongue and went upstairs to my room for about two hours. I went back and forth the entire time, writing in an empty journal and talking to my fiance about whether tonight would be the night I came out. It was an absolutely outrageous thought. I was making one of the biggest decisions of my life at the spur of the moment.
The problems we were all having may or may not be solved by me confessing my atheism, but there was the off chance that if I came out, then my mom wouldn’t care what I did because she would want nothing to do with me. And if she did continue to love me, house me for the next year, and pay for half of my wedding, it was only right that she did that knowing the truth about who I am. So after planning out what to say, in an attempt to end our earlier argument on a clear note and be up front and open, I finally left my room and asked her if we could talk.
In a conversation the day before, she had voiced a concern that I had changed since I started to date my fiance—that I was becoming less religious. Her worry that he was a non-Christian influence was actually the first thing I addressed. I explained that the “bad” influence was actually me—that I had never believed in God, and the reason that my religious apathy appeared to become so much more salient throughout my romantic relationship was because it almost exactly overlapped with my time at the overwhelmingly Christian college that made faking belief wane from difficult to impossible.
Our conversation went on for over two hours, so I won’t tell you every detail about it. But I’ve always predicted my mother’s reaction as going one of two ways: letting a difference in faith destroy our relationship or loving me unconditionally.
She chose the second one.
I knew somewhat that she would react that way because in the conversation I mentioned from the previous day, she had made sure I knew she loved me unconditionally even though she didn’t approve of what’s been happening in my relationship. I figured that coming out as an unbeliever (that was the word I used, when I had to use a label to describe it at all) would put that love to the test. She was mortally confused, but her love was not phased once.
The biggest thing that I explained was my journey away from the faith through college, and otherwise I gave her the floor to do whatever she wanted, which ranged from asking questions to lecturing me, but primarily she couldn’t really grasp how one could not believe in God. Once I initially said I don’t believe, the first thing she asked was “When you say ‘don’t believe,’ what do you mean?” It was that foreign of a concept. I hadn’t considered that this conversation was, in addition to coming out myself, the first step in me introducing a completely alien concept to her. It’s okay with me that she doesn’t understand what I mean, so long as I said it.
Anyways, she elaborated: “Do you not have a personal relationship with God, or do you mean you don’t…believe, like at all?” The flabbergast in her question didn’t stem from hurt, it stemmed from incomprehensibility. Neither you nor I have any clue as to just how real God is to her. God is real. If you don’t believe, you’re wrong. And you’re missing out.
I’m not making that up; actually, it’s a direct quote, and it’s one she said a lot. She also has her reasons for why unbelief is complete and utter lunacy, such as:
- “He answers prayers all the time, every single day.”
- “Where do you think you came from?” (to which I thought that she, as my mother, would know better than anyone else, so I didn’t know how to answer that question without being either snarky or gross)
- “Have you looked around you at the beauty of life and nature and the world?”
- “What about the Word of God?” (I bit my tongue when I really wanted to say, “What about the Quran?”)
When I told my fiance about this afterwards, he was surprised that I didn’t stand up for my beliefs or lack thereof. Of course I have reasons to back up what I believe, but I knew they would have been a waste, and I wasn’t here for philosophical arguments on origins or the argument from beauty or whether or not unbelievers have any life purpose. I didn’t know what she wanted me to say, though, when she would ask, “You know that just because you don’t believe in God doesn’t mean he’s not real, right?” I would just nod or say okay as she struggled through the shock.
I was actually surprised that she was so curious, then, as to what I do believe. It makes sense that she would have no clue what’s out there outside of God. And that’s okay because I don’t expect her to. I mentioned that I’m not trying to change her mind, because that would never, ever happen, but she made it known that I have a long time yet to live, and I will encounter many hardships, and I will come to faith sometime. I didn’t argue with that either; not because I agree or that she is right and I’m wrong, but I recognized that I wouldn’t be able to change the other person’s beliefs while she was and is still positive that she can, or at least she’ll never stop trying.
It was hard for her to see my unbelief as anything but struggling in and seeking faith in God, which again, I accepted, given that I just broke my mother’s heart and I didn’t want to rub salt in the wound that I had just created. I’d explained that I like to read books on the existence of God because it genuinely interests me. She suggested that instead of those, what I really needed to read was (surprise) some bible passages. I should also try praying, as she said, to a God even that I don’t believe in, that he might reveal himself to me. She explained that ultimately I wouldn’t find my answers in the science books or in rationality. In the end, believing is a matter not of the mind, but of the heart. Allowing myself to see how God is at work in my life is what will ultimately bring me to him.
One thing I predicted is that she said she’s failed me as a mother. I don’t know how she could have tried any harder to raise a Christian daughter, especially sending me to the most Christian college I can fathom. I reminded her that one of her daughters practically leads a church, and the other two are Christians; we were all raised the same way, but I turned out differently than the rest.
As we were wrapping up (it was 12:30 a.m. and she had to get up early), I told her that the conversation didn’t have to be over. She was welcome to read the paper I wrote that lead me to atheism and I would love to tell her sometime what it is I do believe, which she won’t understand or agree with, but she wants to at least know. I don’t think this has changed the situation of no-premarital-privacy, but somehow I feel like it was necessary for her to know the truth before the rift got even deeper.