I've been thinking lately about moving back home. I will be there soon after eight years and thousands of miles of being away. My father the other day on the phone said that we needed to have a “long talk” when I get back. He never referred to what it was that he needed to talk about, but it's got me thinking about what it could be. At this point, it could be a lot of things, so I've tried to keep myself from speculating. My father, for those of you who don't know, has become a very strident Catholic since my sister died two years ago. His faith was always important to him, but he really immersed himself in it after that day. This has caused some slight tension between us as I told him I was an atheist just slightly less than a year later, but no serious disagreements or arguments have ever occurred between us. He has surprisingly been more understanding than I expected.
As I prepare to move back home where I will be in contact with him far more often, I don't know what our relationship will be like. When I left home, I was just a kid trying to be a man. Now, I'm an adult, and I haven't spent more than two weeks around my family every six months since I moved. It's going to be strange trying to reconnect. Because of all of this going on, I've been thinking about my relationship with my father, and I've been reflecting on my past and future quite a bit mostly in the form of how I was raised, how I've had to raise myself in many respects, and how I hope to raise my own children.
My father was a good father, but looking back, I've realized that he (and my mother) did a poor job of preparing me for adult-hood. There are a lot of reasons for that. Namely there was a divorce, both remarried separately, both had to work full time, both had to deal with new step-children and ex spouses, and both had financial difficulties. Essentially, we had a lot going on from the time I was 10 to 20 and some important lessons about being an adult fell by the wayside or were substantially delayed. That's not to say that they didn't try to instill these lessons at all. My father was able to take the time to teach those lessons every once in a while, which I am still thankful for, even if I wasn't always the best student.
In one of the last, long talks I had with my father, he told me that he was more of an agnostic when he was my age, but returned to the church when he wanted a family because he felt he could not raise children, “without the fear of Hell,” which is kind of ironic, because I never grew up fearing I would burn for eternity if I did the wrong thing. They had taught us well as children to do the right thing because it was right, which led to part of my doubts about faith later down the road. After all, what's the point of needing to be saved if I wasn't doing anything wrong? But that's a different story for another time.
By the time we kids started to be teenagers, church became a huge part of our life. It wasn't really an option not to be a huge part of our lives. My father tried to say that it was... but it wasn't an option. We were going to go to church. We were going to be a part of the youth group and that was that. You see, my father thought that everything we needed to know about how to live a happy, fulfilling, successful life could be taught through church. His religion could be said to hold some of the most important lessons he wanted us kids to learn. God had all the answers and he was everything we would ever need.
I realized that in a sense when I accepted myself as an atheist, I rejected those lessons he wanted me to learn that he thought were vital for living a good life. I'm left wondering if he took it one step farther and feels like I've rejected everything he has tried to do for me as a parent? I can only imagine that it would feel like a betrayal. And for myself to be proud of shaking off what I felt were the chains of religion where he feels that his religion is liberating, a liberation he wanted for my life? It must be painful for him.
It's common for us to make the distinction between a person and their beliefs. We feel like we can criticize the beliefs without it saying something negative about the person, but what if those beliefs were the equivalent of the greatest gift a person could give you? To criticize those beliefs, to ridicule, to mock them, would be a most devastating rejection. I don't want my father to feel like that. And if part of his parenting was inextricably wrapped up in his religion, a religion I have publicly rejected, wouldn't he feel rejected as a parent? I don't know, but I suppose it's something we'll discuss soon.
I'm worried to tell him the truth. As much as I want to explain to him how my religious faith was detrimental to my development as a person so that way he can better understand why I am an atheist, I don't think there is any way to keep from inferring that his parenting inadvertently caused me harm. The only thing I can think of is to try to separate the good from the bad and focus on the more positive aspects that didn't have to do with my religious upbringing. Don't get me wrong. My father may not have been the best dad ever, but he was usually pretty good, sometimes he was downright great. Not always of course. Sometimes he was kind of lousy, but for the most part I was really lucky to have him.
It's ironic. When I was a Christian growing up, I was not a big fan of my dad. When you are told that God is your spiritual father and we are all brothers and sisters of Christ, your earthly one pales in comparison, and all his flaws are magnified. I'm somewhat ashamed that I did not appreciate my father growing up as I should have. I saw him as a temporary surrogate that was the equivalent of a placeholder until I got to heaven where I'd spend eternity with my Heavenly Father. My dad was good enough, but he wasn't perfect. Now that I've become an atheist and especially now that I'm contemplating having children of my own, I have grown a deep respect for my father and the life he gave to us kids. I'm truly appreciative of all that he did for us. He did what he thought was best for us. Always. He did the best he could with what he had, and it usually turned out well. It wasn't perfect, but it was pretty damn good, and it was often better than other people get.
I hope I can get him to understand that.