Catherine Dunphy’s Story of Being Shunned

Catherine Dunphy, executive director of the Clergy Project, tells an all-too-familiar story at Hemant’s blog. The story is about being shunned by her deeply religious mother over her atheism and it’s pretty heartbreaking to read, especially for those who have endured similar situations (I have not, for the record).

My transformation from theist to atheist took many years and incarnations, but a constant threat to my personal development and intellectual growth was the interpretation and criticism of my mother.

Despite all of this, I confronted the fear honestly and told her that I was no longer a believer before I completed my Masters. Given the limited discussion over the years, I thought her silence was the expression of her commitment to our relationship. Sadly, I now think that she just misunderstood and was waiting for the right time to confront me.

The day before my birthday, my mother took me to dinner, just the two of us. I expected an easy-going conversation about getting older, life changes, etc. But that wasn’t what happened.

Almost immediately after we ordered, she jumped to the conversation of morality. I attempted to distract her and downplay her adversarial tone, but that failed as she sternly focused on my liberal transgressions and my rejection of Catholic orthodoxy. It quickly became apparent that she was very angry and that she had discussed my apostasy with someone else — most likely a priest. In her opinion, I didn’t receive the “right kind of theological training” and my loss of faith was the fault of my educators. I attempted to dissuade her from this conversation, to make light of it and move on, but she couldn’t let it go. My ideas and values were contrary to Catholicism, so the critique continued. According to her, my family and I were immoral, decrepit, and godless. (She was one for three.) The worse transgression, in her opinion, was that my actions were an affront to her status, and I owed her the decency of coming back to the faith. I attempted to appease her without compromising my integrity but unfortunately she interpreted this as a continuation of my “abhorrent and disrespectful behavior.” I tried again and again to negotiate common ground, but after being confronted by continually escalating histrionics, in which she characterized me as “the devil” and declared my husband and I to be “immoral,” I recognized the cold fact that her faith was more important to her than our relationship.

So many of my friends have had this happen to them, disowned by their parents over their religious views, their sexual orientation and even, in the case of FTB’s Ashley Miller, because she’s dating someone of another race. It always just leaves me grasping for words and feelings. I can’t imagine what I would ever do to get shunned by my family. My stepmother is Pentecostal and I’m sure she prays every day for me to return to Christianity. I’m sure she is disappointed by my atheism and my activism. But it’s inconceivable to me, and to her as well I’m certain, that she would ever treat me any differently because of it. She loves me, period. If only more parents were like that.

16 comments on this post.
  1. doublereed:

    I’m with you Ed. I couldn’t even imagine my parents disowning or shunning me. I grew up in an incredibly liberal area, and I attended a Gay-Straight Alliance meeting (ironic because I was totally trying to impress a girl). Somehow the topic of ‘coming out’ came up and one of the people told the story of how his father shunned him for being gay (told him he going to hell and get AIDS etc).

    I had never heard a story like that first-hand before. I had never thought something like that was possible in my neighborhood. It was a real eye-opener. I can only describe it as parents who believe in “conditionally loving their children.” And I started to notice it far more (especially with more conservative families).

  2. raven:

    You can turn it around.

    What would you do if your kids became xians or (gasp, horrors) fundie xians? If does happen although it is rare.

    I decided that I would just shrug my shoulders and tell them it is their religion, not mine. And to keep it in their closet, not my yard. You don’t own your kids, they have their own life to lead as they see fit.

    Fortunately, it never has come to that. They’ve shown absolutely zero interest in any religion.

  3. left0ver1under:

    Is there a way to send a comment privately? I had a thought on this but don’t want to derail the topic.

  4. otrame:

    My sister, as vehement an atheist as I am, raised two boys in Tennessee and, steeped as they were in the local culture, they became Christians and it “stuck”. They have not rejected their mom, but their wives, one in particular, are very careful around my sister. She is treated as if she has a terrible disease and care must be taken to avoid contamination. She is never left alone with the kids. And there is nothing remotely subtle about the behavior.

    My 14 year old boy came home once and told me he had been saved. I said, “Okay.” I even gave him a crucifix for Christmas. I was pretty sure that he would change his mind, but I admit that I would have been distressed if I had been wrong. As it happened, he came home from church a few months later and told me “Those people are crazy.”

    But if he hadn’t? If he had stayed a Christian? I can’t even imagine treating him the way that woman treated her daughter in the OP. I think that for it to even be possible, you can’t actually love your children. “Conditional love” isn’t love at all. It must a horrible thing to realize that your parents will only “love” you if you do what they want–that to them you are a show pony and will only be “loved” if you don’t embarrass them with their friends. I can’t even imagine my parents rejecting me like that, no matter what I did and I can’t imagine rejecting my son, even if he had remained an ardent Christian.

  5. cswella:

    I’m probably lucky in my situation, despite having an uncle who is the head pastor in charge of a church/school in a fairly rural city. But he’s not confrontational at all, I’m sure they suspect my atheism, but they’ve decided not to talk about it. They have tried to set me up on blind dates a couple times, each time the date ends with me telling the truth, so it’d be hard to believe that the news hasn’t reached them yet. Another bonus: He’s the type of christian that believes more in the love messages than in the hate messages. I’m sure he subscribes to the “choice” ideas of homosexuality, but he wouldn’t reject a family member for being gay.

    The only family I have directly told about my atheism is my mother, who would be the most argumentative person I know. She is christian, but not really strong in it. Because of discussions we’ve had, she acknowledges problems in theology, and now doesn’t discuss it with me at all.

    Other than her, the rest of the family is nicely divided up, with the aggressive/debate type people being atheist, and the quiet “Don’t rock the boat” types being christian. I wish more families were like this.

  6. colnago80:

    What ever happened to love the “sinner”, hate the “sin”?

  7. skinnercitycyclist:

    I can think of a few cases where I might shun my own child. If she became addicted to meth or heroin, I would still love her but she would in no way be welcome in my house, nor anyone associated with her, until such point as she was able to prove she was clean again.

    If she became a white supremacist, that might do it, too. But for the sake of imaginary men in the sky, on her part or mine? Not a shunnable item, IMO.

    I think everyone has something up with which he will not put.

  8. grumpyoldfart:

    Pure ego.

    “Look at me God. I’ll do anything for you – even sacrifice my children. I must be one of the best Christians ever.”

  9. amyjane:

    The mother seems to believe she owns her adult child. My sister became a RW Catholic. We were raised by Unitarian atheists. They were horrified, especially my ex Catholic Mom but she wasn’t rejected.

  10. Sastra:

    otrame #4 wrote:

    It must a horrible thing to realize that your parents will only “love” you if you do what they want–that to them you are a show pony and will only be “loved” if you don’t embarrass them with their friends.

    While you’re probably right for a lot of these situations, I suspect that for at least some of these parents their deep faith and piety are more directly to blame. If you take the religious view that the purpose of life is to know and love God seriously — no humanist re-interpretations allowed — then a child who becomes an atheist has to all intents and purposes fallen into the same category as a child who becomes an unrepentant serial killer. The option to just live-and-let-live isn’t really an option. They aren’t asking for a ‘show pony’ — they want someone who isn’t going to destroy things.

  11. Barefoot Bree:

    In recent years, in my purely uneducated opinion, I’ve been seeing more and more different signs of psychopathy – here defined (by me) as lack of empathy for any other person than oneself, but seeing everyone else as mere mirrors or pawns – in more and more people and acts.

    I wonder if this is yet another one – that parents who disown their children for religious or sexual orientation reasons are able to do so because they are devoid of such empathy for their own children, unable to see them as people in their own right, with their own feelings, dreams and human rights, but only as … well, toys, more or less. And if the toy or accessory doesn’t work or fit any more, then one throws it away.

    Does this idea ring anyone’s bells?

  12. otrame:

    Sastra @10

    then a child who becomes an atheist has to all intents and purposes fallen into the same category as a child who becomes an unrepentant serial killer.

    I think that is true, for some parents faced with an atheist child. I feel genuine sorrow for them. But I would also point out that, by coincidence, I not long ago told my son that if I found out he was a serial rapist/murderer, I would turn his ass in in a second, testify against him at the trial… and visit him every week in prison. Because no matter what, he is still my kid.

  13. bryanfeir:

    I think the line

    The worse transgression, in her opinion, was that my actions were an affront to her status, and I owed her the decency of coming back to the faith.

    is probably a good chunk of it. It’s less ‘you’re a horrible person’ and more ‘you’re embarrassing me with this foolishness’. In other words, ‘it’s all about me, and you are making me look bad to the people I really care about’.

    Or, at least, ‘I am too much of a coward to deal with the fact that my judgmental friends and my daughter are at odds, so I am going to demand that you come back so I don’t have to deal with being in the middle’.

  14. Susannah:

    otrame #12
    ,blockquote>I found out he was a serial rapist/murderer, I would turn his ass in in a second, testify against him at the trial… and visit him every week in prison. Because no matter what, he is still my kid.

    This.

    I have a friend who did exactly this. No, the offense wasn’t as serious, but bad enough. The other parents of the teens involved in the assaults were furious at her because her evidence implicated their kids as well.

    Oh, and 30-some years later, her son is doing fine and still keeps in touch. Her ex-”friends”, not so much.

  15. democommie:

    @6:

    That whole, “love the sinner, hate the sin.” thing goes right out he window unless you publicly confess the error of your ways..

  16. captainkhan:

    The Bible itself supports this kind of attitude. Like Jesus saying you have to hate your family to be his followers. Degenerate system if you ask me. I feel sorry for this person.

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