The Trials of Becoming an Atheist In-Law
Jason Eden is a contributor to TheHumanist.com 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.
TheHumanist.com: 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.
TheHumanist.com: 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.
TheHumanist.com: 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.