In The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne, Hester Prynne, becomes marked with a Scarlet A on her chest—literally—for bearing a child out of wedlock while her husband is away. She spends 7 years in prison, endures public shaming in the town square and the community trying to take her daughter away, and remains silent about the father of her daughter, Pearl. She is shunned by her community and forced to live without support, interaction and love. Ultimately, this branding of her sins on her chest, leads to a lonely, drab existence, keeping secrets, manipulation, revenge, and an unfortunate upbringing for her child, a difficult child.
We, who have lives that are unconventional and unacceptable to many Christians also feel marked by a scarlet letter that leads to judgment, silence, and distance. I’ve seen these marked people on the fringes, and I’ve been a part of the problem. I feel sad that my cousin, Bryan, never felt comfortable or accepted in churches after having spent time in prison and because of his many tattoos. Because of our relationship while he was in prison, I know of his developing faith in God. It is an unfortunate thing, that he never experienced a faith community before his drowning 10 years ago in Joe Pool Lake.
Between dealing with mental illness and its stigma, as well as atheism and its stigma, we feel doubly branded, misunderstood, and abandoned as unwanted, too much trouble, and as if we are wearing the scarlet letter of Atheism—all 4 of us. Honestly, as we have opened up about these 2 issues, we have lost friends and family. Frankly, it all baffled me early on. I now live this reality. I expect it, yet we still experience hurt and disappointment. We do not have a shared community.
I want to clear up a few things that lead many Christians to believe things about atheists that hinder any interactions and beliefs about atheist that do not accurately reflect who they are and their positions. These issues I have had to face. I don’t have that option, as my vows have lost no meaning or promise. I seek to understand, because I love my husband. I seek to understand to change the current climate. I seek to understand, because I want better for my family—especially my children. I seek to understand, because I want to help others. I seek to understand so that harmful systems can be fixed to better serve, reach and LOVE those outside or on the fringes. I seek to understand to lead.
We know many of you Christians have not really had much contact, relationship or conversations with people who consider themselves to be atheists. Honestly, I hadn’t either. Keith has had these types of conversations, though, over the years—though at the time he was on the other side of where he is now. I live in a different place as a believing wife of an atheist husband with 2 teenage children who are at the developmental age and stage of trying to figure out what beliefs are theirs, what beliefs are their parents’, and where they find themselves in this really tricky place.
“These myths do more than hurt atheists. They also harm the basic religious freedoms of all Americans, regardless of their beliefs. Religious freedom and tolerance don’t mean much if they can’t be expanded to include those without religion.”
There are articles and essays easy to find online about the most common myths about atheism and information refuting those—if Christians are willing to do the work of researching, reading, and considering new/different information. This video is actually of an atheist asked to share the realities in a church at Sunday worship at the request of a pastor. I recommend it because it is a good conversation and a good picture of our experiences. This atheist was raised a Christian. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7hzHSA7pSWc
I’m sharing here about our personal experiences, though the accepted list of most common myths about atheists apply to Keith as well.
This probably seems like an odd place to start. Of course, an atheist has chosen, come to, or can only accept a belief system for which there is scientific proof and evidences. Most Christians express a lack of care for someone who has joined this group with no God, no matter how it happened or what wounds might be present. Some people are raised in atheistic families and it is their way of life. For the increasing number of former Christians who have had a de-conversion, as the term goes, it has been a hard process. And this is a quickly growing populace in our world today. Individuals leaving a faith group or belief system, experience grief. There is a loss of community, shared beliefs with family, shared holidays and these things alone change a lot of life. For an individual raised in a Christian home there is often a loss of family contact and the angst of other loved ones to deal with, along with their judgment. Atheists in the United States live in a culture and society in which religion is crammed down their throats—Christmas, Easter, prayers at football games, supposed wars on Christmas, and accepted terminology, etc. Add to this the faulty beliefs many hold in regards to atheists and this is not an “easier” path as some Christians believe in their attempt to explain away how faith can be lost.
In addition to atheists paying a price, our children pay a price for lack of understanding and love in these situations from Christians, churches and pastors. So, while we know many believers believe this is happening in our home or in any atheist’s home, Keith is not pounding his beliefs in to Jerica and Cade. He wants them to be educated. He wants them to think critically. He wants them to be able to make their own decisions, something he doesn’t feel he had the freedom to do growing up. We are working hard to provide a safe place where our kids can wrestle with all of the hard questions, knowing they are loved regardless of where they find themselves in relation to God. They see that their mom and dad love each other dearly, and are committed regardless of differing beliefs. But there is a tension we live in now. It is not a tension of fighting, or trying to be right, or not connecting. It is a tension that we are all hanging in different places at the moment and are learning how to live in that, be ok, and have loose ends. At a friend’s for dinner this past weekend, a prayer was said before a meal. Keith always waits quietly. Jerica and Cade are watching their dad, and I am watching them. It is a tension that mainly comes from Christians in our lives.
Recently, comedian, Tim Hawkins posted a video to Facebook that was being passed around among Christians of the songs that atheists’ children must sing. I saw believers commenting and laughing about this and passing it on. When I commented that I didn’t find this funny and that I wished Christians would seek to love and understand atheists instead of poking fun of them, I received feedback from others who think it’s ok to poke fun, because Tim pokes fun at lots of people/things. I am certainly ok with Tim Hawkins, a professed Christian, laughing at himself and people like him who he completely understands—that’s one thing. He knows who buys his videos and tickets to his shows. It’s a group-think mentality.
BUT. To poke fun at someone else we don’t really know or understand? We are further isolating others, perpetuating myths, and do not endear ourselves to a group among us who we should be trying to love, support, and show God to. I can guarantee you that this was NOT FUNNY AT ALL to my 2 children, children of an atheist. This has been a hard process on them as well. They’ve had to grieve and adjust to ideas, beliefs, and changes in our family as a result of Keith’s atheism. They have also experienced different treatment as a result of their dad’s beliefs, which they do not currently share, but which they must always consider, think, and adjust to. A pastor at a church we’ve been attending has treated my children differently, trying to show them very specific videos, putting them in positions where they were supposed to choose between their dad and God, and requiring different things of them based on their dad’s belief and their up-and-down struggle with their own beliefs.
Light bulb, folks. Pay attention.
My children are not responsible for their dad’s belief or unbelief. And 13 and 14 year old brains are experiencing the largest and fastest growth rate of all lifetime—as it’s supposed to. The growth at this time involves the development of abstract and critical thinking. Adolescents are ALL trying to figure out what they believe and can own NO MATTER their parents’ beliefs. Kids MUST go through this if they are to ever have a faith of their own.
Scientific, proven biological processes here.
This should be a time when children are supported as they think, study, struggle, and find their way. It is ok to struggle. It is ok to question. Home and church should be the SAFE places to do this. Faith is a journey, not a destination. Sometimes it is an easy flowing, beautiful part of us, but other times it is hard, rocky, and appears to dry up. The LOVE OF GOD loves no matter what. And waits patiently. Understanding. Not laughing.
Strange beliefs exist among most Christians in regards to atheism. I do not understand how we still perpetuate such foolishness, but I definitely want to address it as I was once guilty of it also. I really began to see/hear these crazy beliefs and their evidences after moving to Cedar Hill. When we moved it was time to find a church in our community or surrounding area. I had to do this on my own for the 1st time. So people at this church see and know me (a little), but they do not know Keith. At all. All they really know of him is that he’s an atheist, he wasn’t always, and basic stats. Keith will not attend church with us at all any more, but he will go to events outside of church—cookouts, swim parties, dinner out, etc. (As I’ve mentioned in other posts, these things don’t happen nearly as much as I’d hoped a faith community would do.) So, most have met him a time or two and most likely when we’ve invited them to OUR home. After meeting Keith, 9 out of 10 church people comment to me, “Keith is a really nice guy?” Yes, with a question mark and surprise in their voices.
What Keith is Not
People. He’s a person. He does not eat babies—no need for sacrifices. He is not a pagan—he does not worship nature or animals. He has no tail or horns. Actually, he doesn’t even believe in the devil. He does not hate God or Jesus. Atheists do not hate gods or devils or demons. They don’t believe in them, so they have NO emotions about this. There are even atheists who attend churches, just for the community or for unity in families. More than you would think.
What Keith Is
Keith IS nice. And gifted. And funny. And very talented—as an engineer, at managing money, baseball, and creating or building anything and everything he wishes to. Creative, he is. Keith is loving and supportive and encouraging. He takes care of our family, including my mom and dad—which was all his doing. Is he rougher around the edges as an atheist? Some, but these rough edges have less to do with atheism and more to do with the hurt and trauma of the last few years due to mental health issues, care giving, and family. Keith is very plugged in to our marriage and our children. He was all of these things before THE A WORD, too.
Believers, Keith is not going to sit through your God’s Not Dead movies, nor is any atheist. This movie, and movies like it, are created for, and to back up, evangelical churches and its members who already believe. Again, a group-think mentality. Atheists are mostly not at all like you’ve seen portrayed in these movies and college classes. Nor are atheists’ exchanges with Christians often like what is perpetuated in these types of movies. These movies are VERY stereotypical and are NOT the norm. Few Christians ever truly engage atheists, often out of fear, and because it is hard and emotional to debate and support their beliefs. Poorly written, produced and directed Christian films are just not going to do it. Keith, as with many who experience de-conversion, knows the Bible and scripture very well. He has read all the apologists. He has read young earth creationists. He knows more about the Christian belief system and history than most Christians. It is not going to be a blog, a movie, a book, or post that is most likely to affect any change in the heart of an atheist.
We are not going to reach atheists by shunning, condemning, judging, avoiding or ignoring atheists. With this group of society growing while groups of believers are shrinking, we should not be pointing fingers, laughing, or discriminating against them or their children, if we are truly living out the Sermon on the Mount and the Great Commission.
At one time, I regularly asked for prayers for Keith, and for others to take time to get to know him and what is important to him. He was more than willing to do this. No one has taken me up on that in 3 years. We have to live on our end always knowing there’s a big elephant in the room when it’s anyone besides our family of 6 present.
Think about what freedom of religion and freedom of speech really means. Look at these freedoms in your own life. Stop trying to keep others from the same freedoms—this goes for other religions like Islam, atheists also. Many Christians preach, want and relish that freedom for ourselves, but we do not allow that same freedom to everyone else. We must do what we say. We regularly force our religions, the most mainstream one in this country now, down everyone else’s throats without a second thought.
Get out of your comfort zones. Know what you believe. Shore up your own faith. Don’t be afraid of conversations or doubts. We all deal with it. Practice what you preach.
Love equals being known, being heard, and being loved despite it.
You can't love someone you don't know.