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Beyond Tolerance: A New Tool

Yesterday I spent the day with my parents. For the last few years this has been mostly a pleasure. Before that, spending time with my mother especially was a challenge both intellectually and emotionally. My mother is a devout Catholic and refers to her beliefs often during conversation. Her days are filled with attending church, being a Eucharistic Minister and participating in church groups and activities. In the past I saw her religious injections in our conversations as an aggressive attempt to convince myself and others that Catholicism was any person’s only mechanism for living a good, moral life. My perception of this was set up by my repeated experiences during childhood where she would insist on enforcing the rules of Catholicism at every instructive opportunity.

In the early part of my atheism I would try to draw a correlation between her religiously enhanced statements regarding ethical living and the basic human understanding of morality to gently point out how religion is an extra and unnecessary step for people to take in order to be “good” people. She usually didn’t pick up on it or would simply disregard it as non-believer nonsense. I would feel frustrated not only due to how clear it became over and over to me that she was unreachable but also because I couldn’t meet my own mother on a level of mutual understanding of how humans, especially myself, really do develop a moral code. To her, only people who believed in god could truly understand and therefore implement moral judgement throughout the course of their lives. Reading between the lines of her staunch belief meant knowing that there was a great bias in her perception of others according to what religion they practiced if any. That means I’m not living correctly in her eyes. That reality has been a life-long struggle for me and a source of frequent confusion when sharing time with my mom during which we otherwise sincerely enjoyed one another’s company. How can this be? Add to that the just as confusing truth that my father is and always was an atheist. These two people have had googley-eyes for each other throughout their 50 plus years together. These deep feelings between them included mutual respect, the sharing of ideas, mutual support and the appropriate deference to one another that parents often exhibit. How could my mom feel this way about my father knowing he didn’t share her deepest convictions? And vice versa?

Over the years my father and I have shared many an eye roll and huge amounts of laughter during our observations of religious behaviors in others including my mother. We were usually careful not to hurt her feelings and if we did we would promptly apologize. She would and still does accept those apologies with a knowing smile on her face. And there it is, an indication of the ability in her to understand how her beliefs may be absurd to others but she still believes, without hesitation, that she is the one living the right kind of life. It’s exactly at this point where I can see her reasoning ability intersect with her faith in unsubstantiated truths. Her choice was and continues to be an adherence to faith-based thinking.  This choice had repeatedly left me in a space that felt like a significant and uncomfortable distance between my mother and I. I didn’t expect that feeling to change during the time we would remain simultaneously alive. A resignation that left me with an undercurrent of sadness when considered. To be clear, I don’t need my mother to change anything about herself to make me happy. I just felt there was something I wasn’t comprehending that could enhance our bond.

It wasn’t until a few years ago after surviving a prolonged life-threatening and traumatic experience that I chose to prioritize the relationships in my life that held meaning. I had realized that life truly is short and there’s no way to redo anything after death. There were some relationships I wished to reinstate after my being physically unavailable for their sustainment as well as some that I wished to re-explore although they needed to be rebuilt from their very foundation on my newly revised terms with a strong perimeter in place in order to support my new set of appropriate boundaries. In other words, I had developed a solid core of confidence resulting in an unshakable self-respect. While I was not aggressive with those who would disagree with me I was no longer interested in any exchange of dialogue where another would utilize degradation or mockery to win a debate. This meant I needed to disengage from undesirable situations with friends and loved ones with as much dignity as I could muster. And the choice to implement these new guidelines for myself left me with an openness to finding new coping mechanisms that would assist me in achieving these kinds of relationships. I’ve found this to be a challenge intellectually and emotionally. A very exciting challenge indeed.

Armed with this new set of criteria I headed toward my relationship with my mother carrying much enthusiasm. We began to form our connection slowly and deliberately. We have a good deal in common already. We  share a strong interest in politics and world affairs. We each support Liberal beliefs in equality for all and we take our voting responsibilities quite seriously in hopes that that equality will be instated for everyone. We are each fiercely independent and certainly don’t apologize for it. Neither of us suffer from a fear of speaking out whether it’s for or against something. We also love sharing any new knowledge we obtain as we are both avid readers. These traits would seem to make for a great mother-daughter relationship.

Then religion, which my mom sees as the basis for all her principles, shows up and ruins the party. For a moment, without words, we each see ourselves on opposite sides of the line and we exhale knowing that we just can’t get beyond this. There’s a crucial piece missing, nowhere to build a bridge. We can see the good intention of the other but we just can’t get there. I have searched for ways to create a means to understand how to envision and construct that bridge. Tolerance is a valuable tool but understanding how and why she chose faith over reason would seal the deal for me.

Enter Christopher Krzeminski and his skillfully written and comprehensive book, “What Are You Without God?”

I discovered the book while floating around the Twitterverse and decided to give it a try after a few Twitter users I have come to respect had mentioned and/or endorsed it. While reading the first few pages I realized I was in for a buffet of useful knowledge. Hunches I had been experiencing were being articulated and validated while I was digesting this dense and great volume of information. Further into my reading it became clear to me that I was going to end up with a fresh understanding as to why an otherwise intelligent person would seemingly choose to use faith to make sense of things in place of reason and facts. I’ve  since arrived at a place where I can see, knowing my mother’s personal history, exactly why she chooses faith. My empathy toward my mother, and others who remain religiously devout, grew deeper allowing my interactions with her to be observed with a larger lens. The emotional relief I feel now is absolutely necessary while I continue my quest to make the best of the time I have left with a woman who nurtured me without reservation for many years. My mother’s love for her children knows no bounds and has warranted much respect. She may believe that her ability to love on such a level came from god/Jesus yet I wish she could see that this ability comes from her deliberate choices and the development she demanded of her own character. The level of self-confidence a person can obtain by taking credit for their own achievements can not be underestimated. The results of that confidence serve to enable a person to reach their highest potential. If we all operated from our optimal potential this planet and its inhabitants would be and could be experiencing considerably better conditions in countless ways.

I’m certainly going to enjoy the fact that I finally acquired a badly needed tool so I could navigate a mutually beneficial relationship with my mother. An added and welcome benefit is being able to use this new lens when encountering many more loved ones, friends, acquaintances or strangers who talk about, even become aggressive with, their religious beliefs. The threat is gone for me. I see these behaviors as something they truly believe they need to literally survive. To me it’s akin to intoxication. So I have to ask myself, how am I going to interact with a highly intoxicated individual? Does reason work? Usually not. What I choose to utilize after my first assessment is often any verbal tactic I can see that will diffuse or disarm. I then would offer a reason for that person to expect to be respected by me during our exchange and that in return I will demand the same. Beyond this point, if there’s an exchange of agreement on the terms, I approach carefully removing any of my emotions and using only intellect. Having worked for years with victims of domestic violence and sexual assault I have been trained to offer unconditional positive regard in these situations. The most important rule I learned in my training was to never attempt to remove another person’s current coping mechanism unless or until they offer a clear signal that they are psychologically and emotionally prepared to use another coping skill. If that signal should reveal itself you must offer them a solid replacement to rely on while they adjust to their new tool. At this point you need to assure them that you and others are available to support them during this transition. Taking this exercise on in any other way, in my opinion, would be unethical.

With the unification of my experience and this gem of a book I feel better equipped to deal with the unrelenting onslaught of religion and it’s consequences. And it feels good.

Special thanks to Christopher Krzeminski for writing a book that offers at least a necessary understanding of how humans are affected by the exposure to faith and for writing it in a such a way that it has had a significant positive impact on me personally.

You can reach Chris on Twitter @marco_iO9

What Are You Without God – can be found on Amazon.com

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