I told my Dad I am an Atheist

That was interesting and not entirely how I expected it to go either.

First some background.

As a Christian, I was always unembarrassed by my Christianity and in my family I was among the most committed. Of my siblings, if there was one who was not going to die a Christian, it was me. As it is I was the last to leave the faith, however, if you asked them, no one in the family would have predicted I would turn away from my childhood faith.

My father, on the other hand, is what I would have described as a nominal Christian with a very liberal faith. As a child we would always have meal time prayers and he played the piano in church for many years, however, I don’t recall him ever expounding the gospel or leading studies. As a young adult I actively involved in various parts of the church organisation including study groups and youth groups. These are areas I never recall my father being involved in, and certainly not with the enthusiasm that I displayed.

I remember one discussion we had many years ago where he described me as a zealot. I’d say that was a pretty accurate description of my Christianity.

I hadn’t told my father about my move from faith mainly because the subject hadn’t come up, and to be honest, I’ve not been sure of his level of faith. He’s effectively not lived a Christian life for several years. I imagined that he’d done what one of my brothers has done, which was to quietly quit living a Christian life, while not making a formal rejection of faith.

It turns out I was wrong and he still holds onto the basic concepts of a Christian god. I don’t know how strong they are, but they are clearly stronger than I realised. Our relationship has been a bit shaky for most of the past thirty years, though in the last five years, since my Mum’s death, it is the best it has been in all that time. However, there are still subjects that we are cautious about and it seems that this is now one of them.

He’s spoken about my atheism with my youngest brother, with whom I have a very close relationship, and through that I know that at some point he wants to bring me back round again. Not at all what I wanted or expected to hear. I know from past experience that this would be a conversation that runs a very high risk of us falling out again. Thankfully we’re both at a stage where neither of us really wants to risk that and so sensitive conversations are now avoided, whereas in the past we would both have gone in guns blazing and stubbornly blamed the other for the resulting fallout. He didn’t see his young granddaughter for three years the last time that happened; the cost isn’t worth it.

The wider context is that there is more to the conversation that we had. He suggested I might wish to seek advice from the church minister. I explained that he was also a close friend and I wasn’t sure I wanted to cross the friend boundary, so dad suggested another minister. I was very surprised that his port of call for advice was a man of the cloth, so I killed the idea by saying I wasn’t interested in doing that because I was an atheist. The conversation was already emotionally charged and for one of very few times in my life I managed to utterly stump him. To be honest I think I sent him reeling. It was the last thing he expected me to say and when he spoke to my brother a short time later he expressed how shocked he was.

This was six weeks ago and we’ve still not returned to the subject. I think he’s scared of raising the subject with me. To be fair, my brother did warn him that he already knew and that it had been a long journey for me and turning me back wasn’t going to happen. It is nice to know that he has paid attention to direct advice from one of his sons.

On my part, I’m surprised by how strong his commitment still is, we’ve not conversed about Christianity for so mnay years I just assumed he’d be cool about my deconversion, as he appears to be about my brother’s. Why should my faith be more special?

For the first time since Mum died and we tentatively reconnected and started building a new father-son relationship, I am finding myself a little concerned. It would be a great shame this causes a rift between us, there have been too many of those in the past. On the other hand I have hope because we both clearly have different agendas and motivations now and the neither wishes to repeat the past.

 

The Curse of the Bastard

For the purposes of this post, bastard refers to those conceived out of wedlock.

In case it wasn’t clear from my last post (https://confessionsofayec.wordpress.com/2012/02/01/my-wonderful-godly-grandparents/), my parents were encouraged into marriage when my mother fell pregnant. I have no idea if marriage was already on the cards for them and it’s not really a conversation I wish to have with my dad. It might be something I ask him in the future, if the right opportunity presents, but I am certainly not going to raise the subject. I don’t consider it important to know at this time of my life, the answer to the question is not important and would change nothing.

I was in my teens when I realised the circumstances of my birth and it was devastating. I was still reeling from the effects of my parents divorce some years previously, dad had remarried already and there was much ugliness still between my parents, mostly driven by my step-mother. That period of my life was immensely difficult and stressful, so throw in a revelation like this and it just added more torment to an already unhappy teen. Predictably I then started to think that the breakup of their marriage was my fault and if I’d never existed none of this pain and torment would exist either.

Oh the wonderful ways we choose to torture ourselves!

The Christian Response

Years later, when I’d left home and was having my own young adult issues I would have counselling to help me recover from the poisonous relationship that had developed between my dad and I. I can’t remember if the issue of conceived out of wedlock came up during those sessions. I am sure it must have but I really don’t remember if it did. Certainly that counselling helped me.

What I really want to bring attention to is a more spiritual response that came up. It would have been within a year (two at the most) of the counselling and this dramatic event (https://confessionsofayec.wordpress.com/2011/03/28/the-dramatic-deliverance/).

It would be at a church weekend away and, for reasons I can’t fully remember, I ended up in a one on one prayer session with the visiting teacher who was running the sessions. He was very much an advocate of spiritual gifts. When the conceived out of wedlock issue came up (I can’t remember why it did) he flung open his bible and found a passage condemning those who were born out of wedlock and pronounced me cursed. I don’t recall the passage in question and I certainly don’t wish to look for it, if someone thinks they know which one it might be, feel free to suggest it in a comment.

What followed was some very intensive prayer, at the end of which I had to voice out loud forgiveness to my parents for their fornication. I was also instructed to tell my father that I had done so. I didn’t particularly relish doing that, but I obeyed a few weeks later, thankfully dad just nodded his acknowledgment of the information and nothing more was made of it. I’m can’t recall if I had to do the same with my mother, it would have been much easier with her so if I did I am not surprised I don’t remember, this sort of thing would not have been a difficult conversation to have with her.

When I look back on that event I now realise how insensitive this particular spiritual teacher was. I don’t think his treatment of my revelation helped me at all. I also don’t think it was particularly unhelpful either; it did put me through a highly emotional 40 minutes, for pretty much no result.

I know this kind of thing happens on church weekends all over the country, maybe even weekly in some church services. This does concern me as it leaves the affected person with the idea that they are cursed (or even possessed) by something evil and the only help is the casting out of said evil or the prayer to remove the curse.

No counselling or further emotional support is offered. Well for me it wasn’t, I can’t say that it never is elsewhere, but I do know that is not offered as the norm because in the mind of the Christian engaging in spiritual warfare the victory is in the conquering of the entity causing the problem. The assumption is that once that is done the associated problem in the affected is cured. This just isn’t the case and for Christians to put others through that sort of turmoil with no counselling backup is to risk causing major emotional damage.

I can see all that now, but at the time it was happening it just seemed the right thing to do. Cast out the evil demon or pray the blessing of Jesus on the curse really did seem like the right thing to do and counselling the path of the loser.

My Wonderful Godly Grandparents

Among the questions I have often asked myself since abandoning my faith, is how I feel about my mother’s parents. They were both strict Plymouth Brethren and yet also embodied the gentle godliness that one expects from people who profess to be Christians.

I do know that they were strict with my mother on certain things. They had ideas and attitudes even as a youngster I found terribly old fashioned. I remember my mother saying that the university she chose to go to was based on its distance from home as much as the quality of the course she took. Looking at some old photos I found of mum as a teen I can see the mischievousness in her that I saw in her as an adult, there is also a hint of rebelliousness. If my daughter develops the same levels of rebellion and mischievousness, then I am in for a terrible ride during her teens!

My mum fell pregnant some time after meeting my dad, I don’t know how many months passed between first date and pregnancy, but it was a major shock for my grandparents when it happened. My mum was in her 20s by this time, but my grandparents were of the generation where pregnancy means instant marriage and I was born a few months into the marriage. My newly married parents lived with my grandparents for a year and a bit before they upped and moved toZambiafor the next 20 years.

My youngest brother, at the grand old age of 18, managed to repeat the feat of unintentionally getting a girl pregnant. I was with him when grandma explicitly told him that he should not feel that he has to marry the girl. My mum nearly fell of her chair in shock! When I relayed the incident my dad, he was equally astonished. I think they showed grace and humility by showing that they learned from the experience of my parents all those years previously, even though it likely still went against their ideals.

In the time that I knew them, I don’t think I ever saw them raise a voice or get angry. They really were the epitome of mild mannered loving grandparents and it was always a pleasure visiting them. My grandfather was secretary of their Brethren chapel for as long as I can remember and he had one very strange quality that I now look back on as endearing. He prayed as though he was reading the King James Version of The Bible, at the time I thought it was just plain odd. When he prayed he used ‘thee’, ‘thou’, ‘thine’ and other old fashioned words that are not used every day, or any day for that matter, but are found liberally sprinkled throughout the KJV. I have no idea why he did this, I don’t believe he thought it made him more spiritual, quite the opposite, I think he did it because he was spiritual and it was his way of showing deference to the Almighty.

The End

Despite being the fittest and healthiest of my all grandparents, my granddad was the first die. It was sudden. He was doing the dishes after lunch one day and had a heart attack. He was dead before the ambulance arrived. Grandma followed six months later; my wife is convinced that she died of a broken heart, unable to bear being apart from him.

The day of grandma’s funeral I got a phone call that no one should ever get on the day of a funeral. My step mother rang to say that my other grandfather had died that morning. My cry of shock got stuck in my throat and I was unable to speak or even make a noise for what felt like many minutes.

Comparing Funerals

My Dad’s parents were very different from Mum’s. They didn’t live the same Godly life, and apart from family weddings I don’t think I ever saw them go to church. This difference was very noticeable in their respective funerals. The funeral of my Christian grandparents was very much a celebration of their lives with a full church and a very personal eulogy while my not so Christian grandparents made do with a handful of close friends and family and the eulogy given by a priest who barely knew them. It was quite sad in comparison.

Being a Christian at the time, the death of my paternal grandfather was a problem for me, I struggled to deal with the concept of a much loved grandparent not going to heaven. Eventually, with tears in my eyes, I asked my father if I’d see him in heaven. Dad could not be absolutely certain, but suspected so. Conversely, my confidence in seeing my maternal grandparents again was certain and I felt very different about their deaths. There was much more joy, not joy in their death, but joy in where they were going.

That horrid 18 months, in which I lost all four of my grandparents was more than 15 years ago, but I still feel the same emotions thinking back to each one as I did at the time. I miss them all terribly, but its my maternal ones who had the biggest effect on me and that loss is not at all reduced by my lack of faith and nor does it change the way I feel about their faith. I don’t have to share it in order to continue to respect and admire it.

I was Away at School when Dad Remarried

The news that Dad and new woman had eventually decided to get married wasn’t broken to me until after the event.

He met me at the airport, on his own, which was unusual, normally the airport run was a family affair and everyone came along. I realised why as soon as he broke the news to me. He wanted to be alone with me, though why I am not entirely sure, maybe he dreaded some sort of teenage strop. Whatever his reasons, he told me as casually as he could and we had the rest of the journey home to recover. While I would later ponder over the various reasons for my (and my brothers) exclusion from this event, it was never voiced out loud.

I can’t really recall what I felt inside, but my response was “I’m proud of you”. It was a lie of course. The years between my parents separating and this moment were full of anger, pain and deep upset. There were many moments when he and new woman had argued and fought. Fights that I never witnessed between mum and dad. These were times when I truly wished dad would leave her and I really could not understand why he didn’t. Life was horrid and the worst that mum and dad has was far better than an average day with this cobbled together group of incompatibilities, trying to call itself a family.

So the news they had finally got married meant that the dream of dad leaving her was over and my brothers and I were doomed to spend most of the rest of our childhood in this very unhappy unit.

The emotional needs of my brothers and I, in this post remarriage family were never met. We were always bottom of the pile and regularly manipulated and bullied by our new step family. Several behavioural issues came to a head over the years and were never acknowledged or even dealt with properly.

Life with mum was a complete contrast, unconditional love, always and never ending.

Through all these years we still went to church. dad to a very traditional Scottish Presbyterian and mum to a very charismatic Assemblies of God church, despite her Plymouth Brethren upbringing. My spiritual life was fed very effectively by mum’s church, while going to church with dad and the new family was utterly tedious. It was immensely boring and something to be endured, just to keep the peace, because speaking out would invoke the wrath of the wicked step-mum.

Witnessing Sinful Behaviour

The fall-out from my parent’s separation was staggeringly painful. I simply could not cope with the emotional impact that it had on me. The result was that I became very insular, easily prone to tears and enormously protective of my younger siblings.

I could not understand why my parents had separated, as far as I knew we had a happy family at home. I remember no arguments or fights. Though thinking back I can now see moments when the clues were there that all was not right. I think rather than fight my parents just didn’t talk, its also possible that my young mind simply shut out the bad memories.

My parents were now separated, but still married, and with no warning, my father was living with a new woman. Said new woman was fresh out of a marriage with two children older than me. I remember that we visited them as a family a few times. So dad definitely knew her while she was still married and vice versa, as to whether that knowing includes the biblical sense, one can only speculate, its been implied but I don’t know for certain.

Given that Christianity was a major part of the life I lived, the strange scenario that I now found myself in was extremely confusing. I didn’t understand why, I didn’t like this new woman who was to have a major involvement in my life. My mother, whom I loved dearly, seemed to be paying the highest price while also being the most mild mannered and humble of all the adults involved. Nothing made any sense at all.

Then there was the problem of sin.

It was utterly clear to me that what my father was doing was wrong from a Christian perspective. Other kids at school seemed to know things about my family situation that had not occurred to me, which could only mean their parents were talking about my parents. That hurt stacks. Why should they know these things when my parents would not tell me anything about what was happening?

One incident I remember was at end of term. My dad was in conversation with another father and they were discussing the possibility of my dad visiting and staying over. The other father mentioned he only had one spare bedroom with one bed in it. My father replied that that wasn’t a problem, he and new lady would share a bed. Other father promptly informed him that this was not acceptable and would not happen in his house.

Inside I cheered.

Seeing someone stand firm like that was what I needed. Until that point, all I had seen was my father behaving in a way that was contra to all that I had been taught about how to live. Here was someone saying it like it should be. It marked a point in which my respect for my father started to decline. His treatment of mum and bringing in this new woman and the sin that implied was enough for me to realise that not was he not perfect, but he didn’t care for me like he said he did.

It was around this time that I remember being on a car journey with mum and she was having a discussion with a friend about what was going on. Mum turned back to me and asked how I would describe this new woman, as she wasn’t a wife (yet) so what word did I use to describe her. Without so much as a second thought, my reply was “concubine”. Mum shrieked with embarrassment and immediately apologised to the friend, who remained silent on the subject. I think it very clearly shows my thinking on the matter.

Life at home with dad and new woman was stressful and horrid most of the time, with only small moments of happiness. New woman was a bossy and nagging. Nothing was ever easy for her and she was incapable of compliments. This reinforced to me that what dad had done was wrong and drove me to further withdraw emotionally.

The only place in my life that I could rely on for consistency was my education. Being at boarding school was probably a very good thing for me at this time as it gave me space to be away from the painful environment at home. One of the very few places that I found joy was in my growing Christian faith and the daily bible readings.

I was Only Nine Years Old When I Made the Decision to be Baptised

I still remember very clearly what prompted me to be baptised. I was attending a baptism service for the church that my mother attended. It was less than a year after the raid on the farm we were living on.

The Baptism service was being held in the open air on the bank of the river that runs through the farm and several people were getting baptised. I was standing next to my mother, enjoying the spectacle and the songs. The sound of Zambian voices singing songs of worship unaccompanied is quite something. It was a very spiritual moment.

Overcome by what I was witnessing and experiencing, I turned to my mother and said that I’d like to be baptised. She practically burst into tears of joy there and then. After a brief discussion with a few other adults, I was given the option of joining those being baptised there and then. My nerves got the better of me and I turned that down.

So arrangements were made, and some time later I was baptised, in the same river, in a more private service, where close family friends were invited. I can’t remember exactly how long later it was, whether it was weeks, or a whole school term. I am sure it felt longer that it really was. My mother gave me a copy of Pilgrims Progress, which she had written inside a small note of encouragement, and I still have as a one of my childhood treasures, it reminds me of times more happy.

Of course my father was there with his new woman and since he had travelled some distance to be there, he wanted some time with me. That’s the earliest memory I have of there being a battle for my attention. It made me feel horrid, being with my father would often do this. That’s why I always much preferred being with mum, her attention was always out of love and devotion for her offspring while dad’s seemed like it was to score points over mum. I hated that, hated it with a passion, and it would eventually become a hate towards dad and that woman.

Those First Weeks and Months after Baptism.

My first week back at boarding school I was given a small piece of paper by the headmaster with some key bible verses on it. This I placed in my first bible, an RSV. Its a bible I had owned for some time. I can’t remember exactly when I was given it, but I had already marked several verses on it by that time. I’ve owned several bibles since, but this bible is by far the most battered and scribbled in, and that small piece of paper with the key verses on is still there in the front cover.

I read the verses on that piece of paper many times in the following year. I knew my time at this school in Zambia was coming to an end. I knew my parents marriage was also going to end, I struggled massively with the denial of it. Even now the memories of that torment bring me to tears. I could not understand how or why my once wonderful childhood could be crumbling like this. Life used to be so wonderful and carefree. Since dad had introduced this new woman it had all gone to pot. That’s how I continued to see it anyway. It would be several years before I’d learn more of the truth, but until then all I had was what I saw and what I saw caused me immense upset on a regular basis. Being away at boarding school, with my little piece of paper tucked inside my bible, was my refuge from the turmoil, the hurt and the broken heart.

So I was sustained by the bible and I put a lot of effort into studying it. It was my distraction because talking about my family was, and still is at times, too painful. As my respect and admiration for my father diminished, so my devotion to a heavenly God increased.

Parental Marriage Breakdown

After the horrible events of my mothers kidnapping. The next time I saw my parents was the next school holiday, which just happened to be the Christmas holiday. They were separated and my father introduced me to the woman who would later become my step-mother. It was a lot to take in for a 9 year old.

To my young mind, a near disaster like that should mean a family looks after each other. Yet here what I saw was the apparent abandonment by my father. The truth was much more complicated than that, but my young mind could not comprehend why my parents were separating, why there was a new woman being forced into the situation and how this related to the kidnapping of my mother. It would change forever how I related to my parents, my mother became someone even more special to me and my father lost much of the respect I had for him, from that point on our relationship would be difficult and strained. In my mind he was the villain.

The truth is, neither of my parents were perfect and both had their roles to play in the breakup. It was how they acted post breakup that influenced how I viewed them. My mother would never tolerate me saying anything derogatory about my father, no matter how true. She always behaved with dignity and I never felt unloved by her. The opposite is true of my father, I had to endure much spite against my mother and often felt that I came second place to the siblings of the new woman in his life.

How did this shape my Christianity?

Given that I had no reason to question the validity of the Christian God or the truth of Christianity, it didn’t directly shape it. I never consciously thought that the separation of my parents or the events that led up to it could in any way challenge the existence of God. After all, it is humans that mess up, not God.

My father and his new woman would also continue to go to church, long before they eventually married, even before my parents divorce came through. I couldn’t understand why I had to endure this pain of my parents separation, but it certainly wasn’t God’s fault.

Boarding school would be a regular refuge from this pain and the care provided to me by my teachers would be a constant source of encouragement and strength. At least with them I knew there was a consistency of love and presence. This was very important to me and it was this that continued to nourish my growing Christian devotion.