Sunday, March 1, 2015

How my Cub Scout Outed me as an Atheist to my Parents

My parents knew I doubted religion long before I left their home.  I was confirmed as a Presbyterian, but my "statement of faith" was weak.  I wonder if my mom still has it.  I attended church from time to time when I was away at college -- mostly to appease my mom.  Christmas, Easter, and the occasional special event.

My wife and I were married in my parents' church, but we'd likely make a different choice if we made it again. We chose the church for all the wrong reasons: tradition, family expectations, comfort.

For almost a decade after that, I was something of an apatheist. Of course I didn't believe there was a god, but I didn't really care much either.  But as my kids entered grade school and started to be able to ask coherent questions about religion, I realized they needed to be prepared for the sorts of indoctrination they would no-doubt get from their religious classmates here in the Bible Belt of Ohio.

I started taking an academic interest in atheism. I started watching debates, reading books, and listening to podcasts like The Thinking Atheist and Dogma Debate. For the first time, I discovered atheist authors like Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, and Christopher Hitchens. I started talking with my kids about what I believe and why. My kids know what I believe and they know that I will love them no matter what they believe.

My kids know that their grandparents (my parents) hold Christian beliefs. And I've told my kids that they're welcome to ask and discuss with grandma and grandpa. So when my Cub Scout son was reading a Bible story in a Boy's Life magazine with my conservative Christian father, he simply said, "Dad doesn't believe in God". No biggie. Very matter-of-fact. He had no idea that I hadn't really discussed my atheism with my parents.

As I've come to hear more apostasy stories, I've learned that I'm pretty fortunate in how well my parents behaved.  My parents are Presbyterian, one of a handful of American churches that has taken the first steps to supporting same-sex marriage where it is legal. I never once thought that my parents would disown me for my beliefs. My relationship with my parents was somewhat awkward for a couple weeks, but in the en it started a more open dialogue. I took the opportunity to thank them for raising me to know that love is more important then faith. But after listening to a podcast titled Coming out Atheist by Seth Andrews and The Thinking Atheist, I learned that I shouldn't take such things for granted. Shunning is still quite common in fundamentalist religions. Extremist parents actually cut ties with their children who turn away from their religion. It's appalling to me to think that religion could trump family. Of course, that's what Jesus demanded, isn't it?

After the "event", I discussed boundaries with my parents. I said that they're welcome to share their beliefs with my kids, but threats of eternal damnation are off limits. They told me that they don't believe in hell. I was glad to hear that. I've come to believe more recently that people chose the Christian sects that agree with their personality.  The relationship may be reciprocal (with religion also influencing personality), but I suspect with the broad range of Christian Sects, from United Church of Christ to Westboro Baptist, there's a Christianity for everyone.

Overall, I think it's a good thing that my son just laid it all on the table like that. I've been able to share with them the challenges I face as an atheist in conservative Christian community. From my role as Cubmaster in an organization that openly rejects my conclusions about the nature of the universe to my career in a conservative business where most of my coworkers are Christian. 

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