The Trials of Becoming an Atheist In-Law

Jason Eden is a contributor to and the author of a book about his journey from Christian minister to atheist. Given the recent Pew survey that revealed atheists are the “most unwanted future relative” I thought I’d get his personal take on the realities of faith and family relationships. Your book touches on some family struggles, but I suspect they went a lot deeper than you described them. Can you share some of the more personal and difficult moments that occurred as part of your coming out experience?

Jason Eden: A lot of it is still difficult today. My mom was one of the first people I came out to. I asked for privacy at the time, specifically mentioning my grandparents who I wanted to tell myself. My atheism was so terrible that it justified her breaking that confidence immediately. A week later I got an eight-page letter from my grandmother telling me that this was the worst thing I could have done (which is ironic, given some of our family history). To this day my mother is non-apologetic regarding that breach of trust, and as a result we aren’t currently on speaking terms.

There were other painful losses as well. One cousin who was a fellow minister, and with whom I talked multiple times regarding our similar faith struggles, blocked me on Facebook immediately. Another stated that she would rather her husband cheat on her than become an atheist.

That said, I am also a member of The Clergy Project, and compared to some of the stories in that group, my struggles are nothing. I’m grateful for the positives I can point to with regards to family. Speaking of positives, your wife, who is still a believer, actually wrote an intro for your book even though she disagrees with your conclusions. How does that relationship work?

Eden: My wife and I have an amazing relationship. Early on I was a very conservative fundamentalist. She had justifiable issues with me extending myself too far in ministry activities. Now she finds herself being the conservative religious spouse. I probably enjoy that a little too much.

Our secret to a happy marriage has always been raw, open honesty, with a healthy dose of grace and humor extended in both directions. My departure from faith did not change who I am. I still adore her more than anything in this world and support her in any way I can. Furthermore, I am a great dad—if I do say so myself—to her children. We still talk regularly about religious topics and the discussions I have with others, with her often wishing folks who agreed with her did a better job of justifying their views. While she wishes I still believed, she understands why I don’t. I suspect she believes God knows my heart and intentions, and when I die he will judge me based on those rather than on my conclusions. While I disagree with her on what happens after we die, if she needs to hold a religious belief, I think that’s the best one.

My mother-in-law has also been better than most. At first, she took my deconversion really hard, but respected my privacy until I had come out publicly. She and I had several difficult conversations, but in at least one instance she came to my defense when others were disparaging me. While I think she fears I will lead my children away from faith, she also recognizes I’m a great dad and an adoring husband, and she loves me for that if nothing else. Any final words of advice for readers who are struggling with family relationships because of their views on God?

Eden: I have made it a mission to be the kind of atheist no reasonable person could see condemned to eternal torment, and I think it has had an impact. I also look for ways to take what’s good about religious traditions and plug into them when I can. For example, I still participate in bedtime “prayers” with my son several times per week. I remember things that happened during a day that I am grateful for and verbally express that gratitude. I don’t pray to anyone, nor do I close my eyes or end with “Amen.” That way I can still participate in an important end-of-day ritual without pretending to believe something I don’t.

I also advise folks to pick their battles. I don’t approach people about theism unless they choose to engage, and that includes family. While I think the world would be an immensely better place if we all adopted humanist beliefs, I still look for opportunities to agree with my religious family, even if I disagree with their motivations.

Finally, I really strive to live out humanist values and the Platinum Rule—treat others as they want to be treated—even as it pertains to my religious family members. They are people on a journey, just like we all are, and whether or not they ever get to a place of truly free thought, they still deserve as much love and respect as I can muster. Sometimes that’s easier said than done, but I choose to believe the attempt is never in vain.