Ask Richard: Atheist Meets Her Birth Mother 30 Years Later… She’s Religious November 20, 2009

Ask Richard: Atheist Meets Her Birth Mother 30 Years Later… She’s Religious

Note: When letter writers sign with their first names instead of a pseudonym or nickname, I randomly change their name for added anonymity.


A few years ago, I met my biological mother (and siblings, etc.) for the first time at the age of 30. I had been corresponding with her, and one of my sisters, for about a year before hand, during which I found out that she was had a strong xtian faith. I had figured as much, as I was adopted through Catholic Charities. They all know I am an atheist, which is something I don’t hide — no one talks to me about it, or brings up their faith to me.

The first birthday we shared, she got me Blue Like Jazz, a book described as “non-religious thoughts on xtian spirituality” (I gave it away). For Xmas, I got a small, fold up manger decoration. I also got a copy of the book, The Shack, but didn’t realize what it was about at the time. I figured that she was sharing things she enjoyed with me.

When I read The Shack, I started to understand her way of thinking: her faith is not about dogma, just god/jesus’s perfect love and a personal relationship with god. Choosing to “live apart” from god is empty, incomplete, without love or trust, even rebellious- independent in a bad way. All of the explanations/apologetics illustrated how flawed the whole theory of god is. But because she takes god as a fact, and has always been comforted by faith, being without it is truly incomprehensible. I began to feel offended (not the best word) for the first time.

Then, for Easter, I got a typical xtian card from her, but she had also written that she “hoped I would reconsider (god)”. It was only a one line note, but I was very bothered by it. I still can’t put my finger on WHY these things bothered me so much — but it did.

I discussed this with all my atheist friends, and a few that are not, but no one was sure what to do. I am outspoken, but mostly polite, and am baffled by what to do. I toyed with the idea of giving her an atheist philosophy book for every xtian one she gives me (what to give her?), but wasn’t sure if it was a good idea.

Ideally, I would like her to see that it is possible to be happy and complete without god/jesus. I would settle for never getting another xtian card. She is not closed minded or hateful in any way, and I know she is doing this out of love- but it doesn’t make it acceptable.

What would you do? Any ideas why did the card/book bother me so much????



Dear Stephanie,

I always hesitate to hypothesize on the thoughts and motives of people. Speculating about why someone thinks, feels or does something is a risky prospect. Such suppositions should be accompanied by broad and frequent qualifiers. “Maybe, possibly, perhaps, I suppose, I imagine, it could be” keep us humble while playing at being mind readers. We can only know our own minds, and often we’re strangers to parts of ourselves as well.

In the end, even if we are correct, all we have to our question of why we or someone else thinks feels or does something, is a “because.” Having that answer doesn’t automatically change anything. Changing things takes time and work.

However, having some understanding about another’s motives can sometimes help us to find more patience and compassion for them. If we get an accurate glimpse of the emotions behind their actions, we have the chance to empathize, and empathy tends to make any relationship better.

Understanding your own feelings about your mother’s gifts are linked to understanding what may be her motives. So I’ll begin with some highly conditional speculation about your mother first:

She gave you up for adoption under circumstances not stated here. Regardless, I imagine that it was very difficult and even painful for her. She may have a great deal of regret or guilt surrounding that. Then 30 years later you reappear in her life, having been raised by someone else, having had experiences and influences beyond her control. She learns that you are an atheist. She may think that this is one of the things that would have been different if she had been able to raise you. It might be a source of regret or guilt for her, as she wonders how you might have turned out differently. “Would have, could have, and should have, if only” can torment people like harpies. So possibly, she hopes to try to correct something that “went wrong” in her absence. Perhaps, trying to make up for lost time, she wants to give you what she sees as a gift, her faith.

In your description of your understanding of her beliefs, the statement “To live apart from God is empty, incomplete, without love” may hold some special insight into her experience. She had to live apart from you, and it might have felt terribly empty, incomplete, and without love. She knows what that is like, and she doesn’t want that for you.

Stephanie, since main question of your letter is why are you increasingly perturbed by your mother’s religious gifts and remarks, now I’ll do some highly conditional speculation about you. Please accept my apologies in advance if I’m way off, which is quite possible.

You described your feelings as, “offended, (not the best word)” and “very bothered.” I wonder if your feelings could be summed up as “hurt.” Perhaps you think she is making a statement about you by giving you these religious things, and you think it’s not a flattering statement, so your feelings are hurt. Maybe you think she’s saying that you are mistaken, or wrong, or foolish, or immature, or “rebellious-independent in a bad way,” or the worst thing she could possibly say: that now that she’s met you after 30 years, you are a disappointment.

Ouch. That hurts.

Remember, these are only my speculations about your speculations about a third person’s possible statement hidden in her giving you gifts and cards, a statement that may not be be there at all. As I said, guessing what’s in another’s mind this is a risky prospect. It’s probable that none of it is correct, and let’s hope so, because that’s a lot of unnecessary hurt.

Most likely, these gifts are statements about her, rather than you. I think that if your mother has gone through and may still be going through just some of the painful things I’ve postulated, then it’s not likely that her religious gifts mean that she’s judging you disapprovingly. Any disapproval or disappointment she is feeling is probably directed back onto herself.

I think you are on the right track when you say that you know she’s doing this out of love. I would only add that she’s doing it out of love, mixed with sadness, pain and regret, as well as hope for redemption.

I suggest that you receive these things graciously, accepting them as her gestures of love. The only statement about you in them is that clearly, she thinks that you are worthy of love. Enjoy them for that, then discard them, give them away, or put them in a box labeled “Bio Mom’s Love.”

I agree that it is not a good idea for you to give her an atheist philosophy book for every Christian one she gives you, or any tit-for-tat kind of response. It seems clear that you want the relationship to increase in acceptance, not decrease. Sending unwanted things to her would most likely only create a similar kind of upset that you have been experiencing, because she might assume similar unintended meanings of disapproval by you.

Her religion is a large part of her life. My guess is that your atheism is a much smaller part of yours. There is so much more to what you do with your life than not having a belief in gods.

Send her things that reflect your life and what is important to you. For instance, you said that ideally, you would like her to see that it is possible to be happy and complete without God or Jesus. Rather than sending her things to convince her of that, just demonstrate the happiness and completeness that is real for you. I’m guessing that you don’t go out to try to be happy and complete specifically without God or Jesus, you just try to be happy and complete, period. Share your successes in that way with her. Let her feel proud and happy for you. Leave the theism and the atheism out of it entirely; it isn’t that relevant in this relationship, because there’s so much more to you than that.

You have here the opportunity for a relationship with a person who loves you for a very primal reason. You seem to be able to accept her religiosity as simply a part of who and what she is. Reframe her religious gifts and gestures to you, seeing them as expressions of love instead of disapproval of you, and then you can enjoy and return that love unhindered.


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  • This is wonderful. I truly couldn’t have said it better myself. I especially love the idea about sending her things about her life so her mother can better understand her world view.

    However, I’m not certain about the part “then discard them, give them away, or put them in a box labeled “Bio Mom’s Love.”

    For the first while, yes, this is probably best. But later, if her mom persists with these little comments, I think a conversation over tea or a gentle letter might be warranted. I took this approach with my sister who, I think, found my Atheism to be rebellious, based on certain comments she made to others. I love my sister and was hurt that she felt this way, so I wrote her a long letter to tell her what Atheism meant to me.

    In the end, she finally understood me better and even respected me for my choice.

    Gentle conversations are always better than avoidance, I think.

  • Skunque

    I don’t see what would be wrong with having a short, polite conversation where she asks the mom to table the religion subject. With a warm and friendly demeanor, of course. Nothing’s been said to indicate the religious family members will react poorly to some gentle boundary setting, and one of the letter writer’s stated objectives is not to change her mom’s mind, but simply for the cards to stop.

  • Amy

    All excellent points, and good advice for a difficult situation. I would also suggest that any books or other materials given to the mom by the daughter be specifically humanist, as it seems less confrontational than the concept of atheism, and it’s more about what is believed, rather than what’s not.

  • JulietEcho

    My Grandparents found out that I’m an atheist about a year ago. I didn’t know, at the time. I had filled in my religious status on facebook as “Atheist” and a cousin apparently passed on the information after I friended him.

    I began receiving tracts in the mail with their cards, and I noticed that their urgings to “put Jesus first in my life” and so-on became more fervent and frequent.

    Like Richard has said, these thoughts and actions, however misguided (the tracts, for example, are the kind designed for people who know little about Christianity and I’m incredibly well-versed from all my years of Sunday School and Youth Group and Bible Study and sermons and worship team and a religious studies major!) are an expression of love.

    Sure, they might be disappointed in me (or in my parents), they might be embarrassed, they might be worried – but this is primarily about their concern for my welfare (they believe in a very literal hell), and it shows love.

    I choose to focus on that and refrain from much speculation on any other feelings they may have. They’re not giving me any negative feedback, so I’m not going to infer any. I love them, and they love me, and in this particular relationship, that’s what’s important.

  • Matto the Hun

    As usual, Richard has responded with more wisdom than I am currently capable of.

    However, I am not sure I’m in total agreement on one point. That the gifts should be interpreted as only as “gestures of love” and should be essentially ignored. I’m not disagreeing that they are given out of love, but I think that at the same time she has clearly opened the door for dialogue.

    Then, for Easter, I got a typical xtian card from her, but she had also written that she “hoped I would reconsider (god)”.

    After a series of themed gifts with thinly veiled messages, it has culminated in another xtian gift (a card) with an explicit, personally expressed message. I don’t see how this cannot be seen as an open door to a dialogue at the very least.

    You have here the opportunity for a relationship with a person who loves you for a very primal reason. You seem to be able to accept her religiosity as simply a part of who and what she is. Reframe her religious gifts and gestures to you, seeing them as expressions of love instead of disapproval of you, and then you can enjoy and return that love unhindered.

    Why does our writer need to accept the mother for who she is when the mother is not accepting her for who she is. I do not disagree that the mother is pushing her beliefs out of very sincere love, but at the same time it is very disrespectful and condescending though she may not realize it (which would also make her thoughtless).

    While reciprocating with atheist gifts would be fair in theory, I agree that it would not be a good way to go. I think a dialogue would be far more appropriate. In some ways the dialogue has already started on the mother’s side. This sounds to me like a great opportunity to discuss fallacies in The Shack.

    Leaving theism or atheism out of it entirely isn’t really an option since the mother seems intent on inserting her theism. Pretending it’s not there well be a recipe for future resentment. There needs to be some kind of understanding about each other’s world views and how they can have a relationship while respecting those differences.

    I have a hard time believing that can happen by ignoring what the mother is doing.

    I think I’m starting to talk in circles so I’ll stop now.

  • Carol

    Richard, I always love your advice – it is always “right on,” thoughtful, wise. But for the first time, I find myself disagreeing with you.

    I don’t think Stephanie should have to accept these gifts graciously and quietly when they bother her. They would bother me, too – when a card includes the line “I hope you reconsider god,” it is subtle (or not-so-subtle) proselytizing. Her mother, who knows Stephanie is an atheist, is not respecting Stephanie’s beliefs. Regardless of how well-intentioned and well-meaning her mother is, it is still disrespectful, even offensive. Over time, as Stephanie continues to receive these gifts, I think resentment would build up.

    I believe in honest communication. I think Stephanie should take her mom by both hands, look straight into her eyes, and say, “Mom, I love you, and I appreciate your gifts and thoughts, but I’d really prefer you didn’t give me any more Christian cards or books. I’m not a Christian. I want you to love me just the way I am, like I love you just the way you are. No more references to god, no more Christian books or cards, no more references to religion, okay?” *kiss*

    Good luck, Stephanie! 🙂

  • martin

    Valid advice, that would have been great until the Easter Card came. The biological mother seems to be getting a little pushy and it really seems it is time to just have a polite conversation about how these gifts are starting to get pushy and causing a rift in the blossoming relationship. Obviously the writer and the mother want to create a relationship that has been missing for 30 years and they need to focus on their relationship and the mother really needs to put more emphasis on that instead of trying to add another character (her god) into the mix, especially when it is something that they do not share.

    I would opt for a nice honest coversation about how the gifts make you feel and work more on building a relationship on things you both have in common instead of something either one of you think the other is missing.

    Best of luck!!!

  • Matto the Hun

    @Alessa Mendes

    You said what I was trying to say but much more to the point. You rock.

    You too Skunque.

  • but this is primarily about their concern for my welfare (they believe in a very literal hell), and it shows love.

    I have the same issue with many of my relatives (all religious and almost all fundamentalist). But I find it difficult to see their attitude as loving in any real sense when they are willing to worship a being with complete devotion who they also think is going to have me tortured for eternity.

    When someone is willing that you be tortured for all of time for not sharing an opinion of theirs its a huge barrier between you. And one which I don’t really believe to be surmountable. It can be, and usually is, ignored. But its there none the less.

  • Stephanie,

    You could tell her that you are a “Naturalistic Pantheist“. That might confuse her just enough for her to stop sending you Christian literature. Some Christians view atheism as an open invitation to try to “fill the void” with God. If you let her know that there is no void because your “God concept” is filled with God=nature then she might desist. Of course this is assuming you are comfortable in saying that you are a naturalistic pantheist.

    Good luck

  • Matto the Hun

    Ok, the following is not advice in any way, please do not follow it.

    Rather than sending humanist or atheist literature…

    Send a Bible with some of it’s greatest Old Testiment hits marked/flagged and a note saying “hoping you reconsider the blood thirsty, genocidal misogynist you worship”

  • Yossarian


    I’m happy to hear that your reunion with your birth mom is overall a positive one. Having been reunited with my birth parents a few years back, I know what it is like.

    My experience has been an extremely positive one. I’m fortunate, also, that religious beliefs do not come into it anywhere. I’m generally a quiet person, and I keep my atheism mainly to myself. I’m a non-confrontational person, so I don’t usually allow the topic to come up. However, both my birth parents aren’t religious, though on my birth mom’s side there is a bit of woo (one of her sisters practices things like Reiki, acupressure, etc). Since all these relationships are quite new, I just respect that these are things they do, and don’t try to come off as a know-it-all (as can sometimes happen).

    I’m in complete agreement with others here that your birth mom is trying to show love, and share a very important aspect of her life with you. In that regard, it’s very important to be respectful – while trying to point out that such respect should be reciprocated. I know how difficult this can be because my wife’s family is extremely fundamentalist.

    I disagree, however, with those who say you should just quietly accept the gifts without comment. This is an important opportunity for dialog, and as long as you remain respectful, your relationship will hopefully become stronger. The situation, however, isn’t exactly equal. Your birth mom could well think that she is trying to save your soul – and some believe that is more important than any kind of respect.

    You are also right that the quid-pro-quo idea of giving atheist books in response to the Christian gifts is a bad idea. I get the idea that this would come off as confrontational, and would just foster negativity and hard feelings.

    Becoming reunited with your birth parents is a very unique experience. There isn’t anything I can think of that comes even remotely close. But as with any new relationships, building them takes time. Strong relationships are built on love and respect. And the best way to get those is to give them.

    Also, it’s important to take things by small steps. Emotions can become very overwhelming, and it’s not always easy to find out where it’s all coming from. (I cried for hours after receiving my birth mom’s letter, and I still don’t know exactly why).

    My best advice is to stay strong, be the person you are, and demonstrate how positive that is. My hope would be that over time she will value the relationship with you more than the proselytizing.

  • Spurs Fan

    Not really related to the issue of the writer, but I actually liked “Blue Like Jazz”. Sure it has a Christian viewpoint, but Donald Miller also does a lot of thinking outside the box and exposing the hypocrisy of many believers. It’s one of those books that can fimrly challenge a theolgicially conservative Christian’s beliefs and at least turn them into a Liberal theologian of sorts. I think that is a first step!

  • Linda

    Share your successes in that way with her. Let her feel proud and happy for you. Leave the theism and the atheism out of it entirely; it isn’t that relevant in this relationship, because there’s so much more to you than that.

    Excellent, excellent advice.

    Remember also that there’s so much more to your mother than her religion. I’ve read The Shack. I am familiar with the grace concept behind it, which is what I have been taught for the last three years in a wonderful fellowship to which I belong (although that may change if anyone from there should see what I’m about to say).

    If I may give you a perspective from that mindset… no matter how loving or accepting a religious person is, if that person believes their religion to be the one and only truth, they cannot let go of the hope of their loved ones seeing the same truth. And yes, the judgment continues, but the judgment is not toward the person or their lifestyle but toward the absence of that belief. If one is convinced they have the absolute truth, of course it would be impossible to fully embrace anyone of a different mindset, regardless of the facade of acceptance and respect. (I think it also works the other way around, from what I’ve seen from a few atheists.)

    It is a huge road block and one that I have recently struggled with. Religion is a prison no matter how nicely it is packaged, and there is always a “but” when questions are posed.

    I hope you can understand that your mother has no choice as long as she is in that belief system. The only other choice is to abandon the belief, but that has to be up to her to decide on her own, which she very likely never will.

    As much as you are offended by her perspective, perhaps you can think of it as a disability that prohibits her from seeing you clearly. It sounds to me like she loves you very much nevertheless, and I can’t see how challenging it would be beneficial to your relationship. She’s loving you the best way she knows how.

    I think sending her books as gifts to share your open-mindedness is an excellent idea. It doesn’t have to be specifically about atheism, although I think she would actually enjoy Hemant’s book, I Sold My Soul on eBay, for starters. 😉 Or you can ask Richard to compile all of the Ask Richard posts and bind them into a book as an example of the human side of atheism.

  • Claudia

    Almost always, I find Richard’s advice absolutely perfect. This is the first time I find myself, though not quite disagreeing, feeling that the advice is incomplete.

    I think that the biological mother is owed the respect of being treated as an adult. As such just accepting the (unwanted) gifts as if they were ghastly sweaters with a forced smile is not, I think, the best way to go. I think a very gentle indication that you’d rather get other things from her would be best. You don’t have to let on that the evangelizing (and that’s what she’s doing) upsets you, but you can say something like “I REALLY appreciate you caring enough about me to want to share these things with me, but I’m not religious and really happy that way. I love (insert favorite book genre/food/etc. here), so those sorts of things would be better”. She’ll still take it as a rebuke, but hopefully a very gentle one.

    Her religion is a large part of her life. My guess is that your atheism is a much smaller part of yours.

    I wouldn’t be so sure. Oh of course “Stephanie” probably doesn’t spend her time contemplating how god doesn’t exist. Stephanie does self-identify as an atheist, has a circle of atheist friends, describes herself as “outspoken” and reads a blog dedicated to all things atheist. Me thinks she’s probably not indifferent on the subject of religion. It’s fine that she wanted to have a relationship of sorts with her birth mother, but I think that since there relationship is inevitably going to be an adult one, it should be based on mutual respect, and that includes respecting each others religious boundaries.

  • I’ve seen a lot of great advice given already. One book I’d add as a suggestion is Boundaries by Cloud and Townsend.

    It’s a book I purchased and read while still nominally Christian. It’s written from the xian perspective, and although it’s quite muddy that way, the psychological advice given is sound. Your mother, quite simply, needs to learn to understand where she ends and you begin — and that your choices aren’t hers to make. Or, as someone else said, treat her like an adult, and address her gently, but directly.

    Actually, I kind of like the mild irony of using an xian book to gently let your bio mom know to butt out of your atheism…

    Best wishes to you.

  • Anticontrame

    I always love Richard’s advice.

    I’d stay away from the comments suggesting that you use this as an opportunity to critique her gifts or her faith. I’d think your real goal is to explore what relationship you might build, and I don’t imagine your critiques would make her feel any better than her gifts are making you feel. You can have a debate with any bum on the street.

    If at some point someone initiates a discussion about your conversion, I’d keep the same goal in mind. Just explain your starting principles, like your need for scientific skepticism, the utility of doubt, or the amount of thought you’ve put into your worldview. Keep it very general. Don’t become drawn into the potentially injurious side issue of critiquing her beliefs, or at least not at these early stages in your relationship. She probably feels the need for acceptance as much as you.

    Of course Richard mentioned the main thing: showing her that you’re happy and satisfied with where you are.

  • Tizzle

    I have figured out how to maintain a relationship with my mother (although not my siblings yet) and father. My family is very practical, and they do not send me material. So my situation is different, clearly. But as with most things in life, the reason why ours is a relationship that works mostly well is based on communication.

    It took me a long time to figure out what to say to my family. Religion really does color their every activity. There’s only so much you can say about sports and the weather. I don’t watch movies or tv, they don’t read books that I read. Pets and gardening kept it going for a while.

    But back in the beginning of my non-Christianity, I had what were quite difficult conversations with my mom. Especially since I wasn’t even sure what I believed but only what I did not. So I brought up fairly gentle criticisms of her particular faith. This was at same time as me moving out of their house, and so we had to redefine our relationship anyway, which generally takes work.

    If I were the writer, I would not let the new relationship take the path that has begun. If you don’t nip it in the bud, then it will probably get worse. Preachy types take no response to be encouragement, in my experience.

  • georgie

    I think Richard gives some good advice, but as an adopted person myself I can understand Stephanie’s issues with the way her mother is approaching this. If It were me I would have a discussion with my biological factor (mom) that although she may be doing all this out of love her time to be a parent to Stephanie has long passed her by. Stephanie is an adult and should be treated as one even in regards to faith or lack there of. I’m confused as to what type of relationship Stephanie thought she was going to have with her biological mom and perhaps she did not approach this in the best way. I don’t think she wanted another mom, but it seems like she got one and if it were me I would put an end to that dynamic immediately. I have never wanted to find my biological factors and being adopted through catholic charities I have thought of this scenario before and I am surprised that Stephanie let it go this long. This should not be treated as a mother daughter relationship in my opinion, but one about two people who are trying to get to know each other, I wonder how Stephanie would treat this if it were just some random person she was trying to start a friendship with was doing this.

  • “Stephanie”

    Thanks everyone for the advice!

    In the time since I wrote the letter, I have made one small change that has surprisingly helped- I changed my Facebook profile info from “Atheist” to “Atheist- and I’m not converting, so don’t ask”. My whole biological family is on Facebook, and we post to each other daily, so I know they saw it. Haven’t gotten an offensive card like that since, but the test will be xmas. If I don’t get one then, I will assume someone got the message.

    I agree with Richards advice, with the exception of accepting the gifts/cards without comment indefinitely. Atheism is a big enough part of my life and identity that I could not let the efforts to convert me stand. The gifts I could tolerate, but the note in the card pushed me over the edge.

    Lastly, I agree that she probably blames herself, and guilt and such is likely part of the equation. Now I can see how any rejection, no matter how mild or unintended, can be hurtful for me (her too, I’m sure). The thought that she might see me as “lost,less than whole, etc” is a personal affront. (She has NEVER said these things, but I think that was the message.)

    PS- I LOVE the idea of sending the bible, plus comments. Its too harsh for right now, but maybe in a few years. That is more my style 🙂

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