As my regular readers will know I often talk about standing up and speaking out against religion. This is something I do online and to a certain degree in my daily real life as well. Yesterday, I failed in a conversation about religion. I did not fail because I was unprepared. I failed because I chose too. I am still not sure how I feel about that and wanted to share.
The conversation was with my mother. She is in her middle 60’s, still married to my father, works full time, and is the primary care giver to my 90 year old grandmother. Her marriage to my father is quite poor. They do not get along at all. This has been the case for at least a decade at this point. While I love my father and get along great with him, he is entirely to blame for this situation. He treats her like dirt. I suppose it comes from some of his insecurities, but cannot be sure. Her home life is miserable. I have counseled her to look into divorce, but being a devout that option seems to be off the table. This of course frustrates me to no end. However, I do recognize it is not my decision to make.
My maternal grandmother is not really any kinder to my mother. She fully expects my mother to quit her job and care for her full time. Anything short of this is an unacceptable situation to my grandmother. My parents cannot afford to be a one income family. My mother needs to work. The result of this scenario is a relationship that has become nothing more than my grandmother screaming non-stop at my mother and telling her how awful a daughter she is.
In short, my mother gets verbally abused pretty much anywhere she goes outside of work or time with friends. It is a non-stop abuse. There are very few “good” days. My brother and I have tried to intervene on several occasions to no avail. We have each gone a period of close to a year (at separate times) not speaking with my father. No change. Trying to reason with a 90 year old grandmother is a colossal waste of time. No change there either. Both my brother and I live in in different states than our parents/grandmother. We are not around daily, and this too upsets my mother.
Both my brother and I are atheists. Our parents know this, but do not recognize it. They are incredibly devout Catholics and religion has become the topic that no one talks about. This works out most of the time. There is zero chance that I will ever “convert” my parents to a life of freethinking and zero chance that they will bring me or my brother back “into the flock”. The status quo is about as good as it will get.
That is the background info, now for the crux of my story. My mother had a particularly bad day yesterday. She called me crying about her fights with my father and grandmother. I feel terrible for her. Then she chose to with the following solution, “The only thing I can do is continue to pray that god will hear me and help me. There is nothing left to do.” I almost dropped the phone.
How could she possibly say such a stupid statement? She has been praying for those exact things for the better part of 12 years. The only change to her situation in that time is that it has worsened. My father is more of an asshole and my grandmother is much nastier. They have little money; she is working past an age that she had hoped. She runs herself ragged for two people who treat her like shit. Yet, through all of this she has prayed…and prayed with conviction. Her solution to the problem, in her eyes, can only be more prayer.
Upon her completion of the above statement, I made some comment to the effect, “So how’s that working out for you?” Her response, “Great, it is what gives me strength to get through the day”. I responded that her prayers have done nothing to change her situation and that to resolve herself to only prayer—to not seek other solutions is to admit defeat and expect her life to continue as it is. At this point she interrupted me with the following statement:
“I know what you think. Don’t you dare take this [prayer] away from me. It is all I have. Without god in my life, and god to talk to, I could not get through the day. He hears me and he does answer my prayers. Do not take this away from me.”
My immediate mental reaction was to tear that entire foolish statement to shreds…but I did not. I did as she asked and dropped the discussion.
I have very mixed feelings about how I handled that situation. On the one hand, there is little that I despise more than people turning to prayer as the final solution to a problem. That is such a waste of time and an excuse to wallow in whatever bad situation one finds themselves in for the rest of their life. There is little I despise more than someone assuring me that god talks to them and answers their prayers (a common theme with my mother—where unless she is praying to be miserable I see no answered prayers). There is little that despise more than someone believing something because it is easier than to face the alternate truth or reality. I despise the argument that we should leave religion alone because it offers some benefits to its practitioners. All of these things apply to my mother. All of these things applied to our conversation yesterday. And I did nothing.
I let the conversation drop for one reason. I could hear the desperation in her voice when she asked to “not to take prayer away from her”. It was incredibly sad—on many levels. I felt ashamed for purposeful ignorance and I felt sadder for the reality that is her life. One thing was clear to me. If I chose to fight over this with her, it would have been devastating to her. I could not do it. I let it go.
I do not regret my decision. However, I would be lying if I did not write that I feel like a hypocrite. I am constantly urging my readers to act. I constantly act. Yet, in this case I could not bring myself to do so. The problem is that I am not comfortable with any of this. I hate the idea of letting her think prayer is the solution and I equally hate the idea of being responsible for creating more pain in her life. I am well aware that this conversation will present itself to me in the future. Should I view my actions as a failure? Surely from the point of an atheist activist they could be considered as such. However, from the point of a caring son, I am not so sure that I failed at all. What is clear and should be clear to all of us, is that being an atheist is not always easy. There are challenges that we all face. I find that talking with other atheists is a good way to learn from each others’ experiences. I am going to assume that many of you may have found yourself in similar situations with family and/or friends. How did you handle those situations?
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