By Dorothy Husen
My mom passed away a few weeks ago on New Year’s Eve. She was 88 years old. The story of her life reads like a thriller novel. She was a survivor, a strong woman, and a devoted mother. She also was a Christian. Christianity gave meaning to her life’s suffering. She told me a few years ago that she felt like she could die in peace because all four of her children were Christians. Of course, I did not tell her that I was no longer a Christian because I deconverted last year, so I guess, she died in peace. I hope so anyway.
During the last five years of her life when she came to live with me, we worked hard and sometimes fought hard to forge a new relationship – a relationship based on mutual respect of each other’s stories. I am grateful for and will always remember my mom’s survival story… surviving WWII in Europe… surviving abusive relationships and marriages… surviving immigration and poverty while raising four children.
In fact, some of my favorite memories of my mom were of when we sat together and she told me her stories. I sat there mesmerized – a child looking into her eyes and listening to her stories. We sat in our usual spot, the kitchen counter, sometimes for hours. She always sat on the left side of the counter where her bible, cup of coffee, cigarettes, and ashtray sat in their fixed position by her side. I think she smoked Kent cigarettes. In her slight Czech accent, she told of fantastic, dramatic, and intense emotional experiences of her childhood. I cried with her. I laughed with her. I felt the desperation of war and hatred and fear and longing for love as if I was experiencing it myself right alongside her.
When my mom told her stories to me, she passed on her survival skills to me. Her brain and my brain were attached. We were bonded as mother and child. Our mirror neurons wired together ensuring the survival of our species.
I soaked in every emotion, every fear, every belief, and every survival terror. This was how her survival skills passed into me so that I knew how to survive war, starvation, violent soldiers, bombs falling, and long voyages – great right? Well, here’s the problem – I grew up in Southern California in the 1970’s with a stress response system in my brain primed to detect dangerous soldiers and communism. Maybe not so great?
Much of my mom’s survival success was attributed to God’s watching over her, God’s angels protecting her, God’s love and forgiveness washing over her, and God’s saving her life when she wanted to commit suicide. This story about God is a beautiful story. It was my mom’s story. It was not my story.
By the time I had my own children, my own story had become incoherent… just follow the rules and believe in God so that you don’t go to hell and because God said so. From my children’s perspective, this doesn’t seem like a very compelling story to follow. And from my perspective, looking back, well, it wasn’t really based on my story, was it?
Perhaps this is how evolution works. These little changes over time promote the continuation of our species. Perhaps an awareness of new information that certain survival skills were no longer helpful to the next generation selected for a change. And personally, it was time for me to change.
If belief in God was passed down from generation to generation so that I could survive, then why would I not believe in God? If my mom hadn’t survived, obviously, I would not be here and neither would my children. So how can I survive without God? The answer to this question took seven years of slowly changing my focus from looking up to God to looking inward within myself. A little change in orientation created a significant internal change for me.
Today I am an atheist. It took many years of therapy for me to find my own identity because that attachment bond to my mom was very powerful and difficult to change, but it wasn’t impossible to change. I found my own identity for my own survival so that I could create my own story – a story in which God is no longer a part.
As an atheist, I can rely on scientific discovery to inform myself about human development and neuroscience of the human nervous system and the brain. I no longer worry about pleasing God, denying myself, or looking for sin in my life. I no longer spend hours of my time trying to figure out God’s will for my life. My brain no longer focuses on memorizing bible verses and reading Christian books. I am not spending my time and energy fighting spiritual battles with spiritual weapons, because I no longer believe in the spiritual world.
Life makes so much more sense as an atheist. When I am confused or have questions, I can seek for answers in science, in myself, and in nature. I can face my fears and challenges and find solutions that work rather than just praying for answers. I am no longer dependent upon the “mysteries of God” which always left me feeling uneasy in this life and longing for the afterlife.
As an atheist I focus on how to develop relationship skills to help me thrive in life because frankly, I don’t live in a war zone. I don’t mean to be insensitive to the many people of the world who are suffering still because of war, but I also want to live my life in honor my mom’s sacrifices which got her and her family out of the war zone. I give her the credit, not God.
The war is finally over for me, internally, as I live at peace within myself. I am grateful for my mom and her story and all the other men and women who survived before me.
Now as I continue to live my life, and perhaps as we all live our lives, we are a part of the bigger story of the evolution of life here on earth; from surviving to thriving as we learn how to live meaningful lives without God.
“My mission in life is not merely to survive, but to thrive; and to do so with some passion, some compassion, some humor and some style.” ~ Maya Angelou
February 3, 2018