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That's Me In The Spotlight, Losing My Religion

Dear Sugar Radio is a weekly podcast from member station WBUR. Hosts Steve Almond and Cheryl Strayed offer "radical empathy" and advice on everything from relationships and parenthood to dealing with drug problems or anxiety.

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Today the Sugars delve into religion. A woman writes in saying that she doesn't know how to be herself around her parents. She was raised Christian and has a very religious family, but she can't bring herself to tell her parents that she's now an atheist. Should she just let it go?

To help answer, they're joined by the Rev. Jacqui Lewis, Senior Minister at Middle Collegiate Church in New York City.


Dear Sugars,

My problem can be summed up in one sentence: I don't know how to tell my parents that I am no longer a Christian.

The stakes just seem too high. My lack of belief means eternal damnation and more salient, eternal separation from my parents. It means they have failed God in bringing their family to Christ. It means that I can't be part of their community and life, which is entirely about God.

My life is the opposite. I stopped going to church as soon as I left home and became a liberal, social activist, environmentalist, feminist and now atheist. It took me a while to fully let go of God, but I just have too many moral conflicts with the church and monotheistic religions in general.

This has resulted in me having a very different moral compass from my parents. I get uncomfortable about my parents not recycling and they get uncomfortable at any mention of sex. I get uncomfortable when their church friends say homophobic or racist things and they get uncomfortable when I participate in rallies for LGBT rights. I remember my mother asking why I cared about LGBT rights. I knew her worry was that I was gay (I'm not), and all I could think to say was, "Because I care about my friends."

See, the real problem is I don't know how to be myself around my parents. Everything I say feels like it's on the precipice of revealing that I'm not a Christian. This is a constant fear to me precisely because we are so different. Any probe into my opinions or interests reveals the fact that I'm not Christian.

So we as a family don't talk about my faith, or much at all really. They know I'm not involved in church, but I think they hope I still believe. I have decided to let them believe that because it felt the kinder option. But as I get older, this has felt harder and harder.

This Christmas, I went to visit my parents in Texas and spent Christmas dinner with their church friends. This was a particularly poignant Christmas because my grandmother had just passed away and Christmas was her birthday. My grandmother was the only grandparent I knew and my mom's best friend. I know she wants the same relationship with me, but that feels impossible. At Christmas, I didn't know how to be there for my mom as she talked about Grandma "now being with Jesus." I watched as their church friends prayed for my parents and talked about "God's will," and I sat feeling like an outsider. I see the good things faith has brought my parents: securing a supporting community for them in their new home in Texas and bringing my dad out of a depression. But I feel so distant from them.

My parents have been incredibly supportive of me my whole life and I am so privileged to have them. But I feel a crushing guilt and extreme discomfort every time I am around them.

I don't know if having an honest conversation about faith will help. We've managed to manufacture a kind of peace. Will telling them my religious decision actually help? It won't change anything. I worry it will feel like I'm rejecting them — that telling the truth will actually break down communication further rather than rebuild it.

Sugars, I simply don't know how to relate to my relations and I'd love your advice.

Love,

Closeted Atheist

Steve Almond: Closeted Atheist, you can love the believers without loving the belief. You can see what faith — stop calling it religion or God, just think of it as faith — has done for your parents. It has provided them a loving and supportive community, and it has also brought your dad out of a depression. And the same thing is even more true of the love and support they've given you. The way that they were able to love you was partly the work of faith in their lives. They might think of that as the work of God, but you can think of it as the work of faith.

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I believe that whatever you call it, it's human work. In the end, it doesn't matter what that power is ascribed to. It's the fact that something allowed them to be good and loving parents to you. My central feeling is, you need to be more forgiving of your parents, and of yourself. Because the person that you are, with your set of beliefs about the world, arises from the faith your parents felt.

The Rev. Jacqui Lewis: The best of what religion or faith has to offer is an organizing principle. Faith reminds us of our goodness and helps us to create the world we want.

Closeted Atheist, what you and your parents have in common is love — love for each other. And in the common space of love, perhaps you can, respecting your parents' faith, really show yourself to them if you take a risk and tell them who you are. If you say, "I believe in human rights. I believe in the LGBT cause because I care about every person that's vulnerable. I believe in ecology because I know that the planet is precious. I believe in feminism, because women have rights," all of that is a beautiful religion.

Cheryl Strayed: This woman has had God defined for her in incredibly strong and limited terms. And she's saying, "I reject that God, and because of that, I'm rejecting all God." This is why she's calling herself an atheist. Maybe it's not about whether or not she believes in God. Maybe it's about redefining what God is, or how she thinks about the divine presence in our lives.

So much of evolving in a spiritual way is about questioning the things that we were told and testing them to see if they're still true. Certainly for Closeted Atheist, her parents' vision of God is not true for her anymore. So instead of saying to her parents, "I'm not a Christian," she might say, "In my adult life now, I am seeking."

Steve: I love the way you're formulating it, because rather than saying, "I'm not a Christian," she could say, "Here are my beliefs. And in fact, my beliefs aren't in moral conflict with the church. My core beliefs are actually a part of the church, like the idea and ethos of service."

Rather than thinking of it as a binary, either you're a Christian and you're going to have a certain life and an afterlife, or you're not a Christian — you don't have to accept that part of your parents' faith, Closeted Atheist.

Cheryl: Once you are more transparent about your own beliefs, you're not threatened by other people having theirs. When you feel defensive about something, you're uncomfortable when people talk about who they are and how they feel. But I think you can cast that cloak of secrecy away and say, "Thank you for giving me a life full of love and support, and thank you for sharing your faith with me. It has contributed so much to who I am today. But who I am today also reflects other values that I have grown into."

Steve: Often we retreat from a dogma by creating our own dogma in which there's no doubt and no humility. And then we do feel like outsiders. The truth is, who knows? Have the humility to accept there are a lot of paths to God. If you can be accepting of yours, that means you have to be accepting of your parents'. The truth is, you're a deep believer.

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