Monday, February 25, 2013

Life in the Open

In church for Christmas. Nice decor, but
it could maybe use a few more trees.
It's been a little over a year since I came out to my family as an atheist, and surprisingly little has changed. Certainly, they were upset at first. My mom asked me tearfully over lunch why I hadn't told them sooner. A little while later she asked me, not threateningly but solemnly, if I realized what happens if I'm wrong about Christianity. And my dad and I had a few brief, cordial lunchtime debates on religious topics.

Sometimes my parents asked me if I wanted to go with them to church, which I politely turned down except for a few times when it seemed especially important to them—Christmas and Easter, for instance. And a couple of weeks before Christmas they got me a book of arguments for God, which I may work through here if it turns out to be worthwhile. (If so, I'm also thinking about formulating a version of my 30 questions for them to read in return.)

But what I listed above is basically the full extent of their reaction over the past fourteen months. Given that I spend time with them virtually every day, it's surprisingly subdued. For the most part, the topic of my atheism was barely touched after just a couple of weeks.

I have mixed feelings about my family's relative lack of interest in my unbelief. On the one hand, it's great. It's wonderful to be able to talk and have fun with them without feeling distant or uncomfortable. And to be clear, I certainly wouldn't trade this outcome for one where I'm constantly arguing. Still, part of me can't help but be amazed at what a small impact my coming out has had. Having grown up as a Christian, it's all too easy for me to think about my situation from the believer's perspective. If I were an ardent Christian and my sister told me she was an atheist, what would I do? Hmm...
My reaction is confusion, then horror. One of the people I love most in the entire world will be spending eternity weeping and gnashing her teeth in outer darkness! I have to do something, anything to convince her that she's strayed from the straight and narrow! I try to tread carefully around this sensitive topic, but I'm far too curious not to ask what changed her mind. Based on her response, I spend hours researching, steeped in books and articles from renowned apologists, training myself to make the perfect case for the Christian faith. Then, when the timing is right, I broach the subject as tactfully as I can and present my talking points.
Given the seriousness of eternal punishment, the only response that makes sense to me is to expend every available resource in pursuit of saving the lives of my loved ones. Granted, it's important not to come on too strong and drive them further away, but neither will it work to skirt the issue almost entirely.
...So why is avoidance the response I'm seeing here?

It's certainly not that my family is too selfish and unmotivated to come to my aid. They've demonstrated their affection in so many other ways that this holds no water at all. And it isn't that they don't believe what they claim to, just because their behavior doesn't perfectly match their beliefs. I hate it when people draw this conclusion about religious people. It could be that they're nervous about driving me away, just as I would be, but that's probably not the whole story.

I think the best explanation is that humans don't always think through the full consequences of their beliefs. Religious or not, we rarely make optimal decisions given the information available to us. In a way it's not strange to believe in a world of epic spiritual warfare, yet still fret more about what we're having for lunch tomorrow than about saving people from horrific eternal fates. After all, how much time and effort do we devote to worrying about trivial problems like morning rush hour, compared to serious ones like the millions of people suffering from starvation and disease? It's the same basic principle, minus the eschatology.

This may be the most important set of insights that leaving Christianity has taught me—is still teaching me.

Humans are irrational. We make bad, short-sighted decisions. And if we want to bring about as much good as we can, it's imperative that we improve our decision-making, both for our own sake and for others.

So I'm glad that I can live a life in the open, where I'm free to believe what I like without looking over my shoulder. But the next step is much more difficult. Can I live a life where I'm open with myself? Where I constantly challenge the mental weaknesses that keep me from achieving what really matters?

Can you?

1 comment:

  1. Very moving post. As to your question, "Can I live a life where I'm open with myself? Where I constantly challenge the mental weaknesses that keep me from achieving what really matters?"

    Alas, life provides challenges that generate weariness. And when weariness weighs into the equation, sometimes all you can do in a day is what is absolutely the minimum necessary, and other matters are put on hold and not thought about.