An Atheist Son’s Tribute to His Christian Mother


“You’re the best mom in the whole world!”

That declamation burst from my lips countless times when I was a child. Framing my early years were, on one hand, a father whose own childhood left him violence prone and—how shall I put it—unable to metabolize ethanol efficiently. On the other hand was a religious sect hidebound to the past.

I remember these words coming across the pulpit: “The word fun does not appear in the Bible.” As a teen I read the King James version (the only “true” one) straight through from Genesis 1 to Revelations 22.


With countless spot readings.

Sure enough, no fun.


I grew up in a tiny world in which the steady drip of sacred scripture, like a Western version of Chinese water torture, taught us God’s rules:


Judgment: Judgment is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord.

If God knew ahead of time which of those among his creation would end up in hell, why create them, I wondered. 


If God knew ahead of time which of those among his creation would die in horrible ways, sometimes as babies, then why create them? He heard their screams and watched their torment. For what sins were they punished?

Wasn’t God all-knowing, all-wise, all-loving? Why not come up with a smarter plan to achieve his heavenly goals?

I remember a hymn we sang at children’s funerals. One of the lines actually was, “Jesus wants me for an angel.”

Ah. That explains it.


My people believed that God created us full of flaws and then set up rules that these flaws prevented us from following.

What did we get for failing to meet these standards?

Eternal damnation.


Even we humans understand the notion of the punishment fitting the crime.

That wacky God.

Such a kidder.


When God instructed the Israelites to worship him, why didn't he ask them to create beautiful temples, or gardens, or great music, or literature, or art? Why did he tell them that he wanted lambs with their throats slit?



When I raised these concerns with Mom, she cautioned me against “getting ideas.” “We have faith,” Mom would say and then drop the subject.

She wasn’t alone in playing the avoidance game. I’ve patiently listened to a number of sputtering justifications, but I’ve yet to hear one I respect.


Denial: Wide is the gate, and broad is the way, that leadeth to destruction, and many there be which go in thereat.

I heard on the radio that there was a ‘Stairway to Heaven,’ but also a ‘Highway to Hell.’ I desired pretty girls and rock ‘n’ roll. God preferred chastity and country western. He could keep his stairway. I chose the route with the heavy traffic.


My mother, despite all, believed that we had been born into the group that was “closest to God.” Such remarkable good fortune. She was unquestioning in her service to her Lord, yet fun loving, socially adept, and mischievous. She was my rock, and I clung to her when my father and the church shifted the ground beneath me.


I was fourteen when my father hit me for the last time. In the face, as always. I had “sassed back,” and his hand moved faster than I could duck. The difference this time was that he did it in front of my friend Gary. My masculinity was challenged. I dropped my foot back and made a tight fist. He saw in my eyes that if he hit me again I would punch him with everything I had. That night my father’s violence ended.


In mid-life Dad had an awakening. He tearfully and repeatedly apologized to Mom and me. We forgave him, and for the rest of his life he was a devoted husband who my mother came to love. He became my most ardent champion, unabashedly proud of my accomplishments, even if they occurred out in “the World.” We enjoyed father/son closeness for many years.


He preceded Mom in death, and losing him began her decline, which continued relentlessly for two horrible years, until finally her body acquiesced at age 94. She weighed 73 pounds.


As a child, sick in the middle of the night, I healed as Mom sat patiently at my bedside, holding my hand and caressing my forehead. When that wasn’t enough and we had to go to the doctor, she insisted on pills, not shots. Not the best health practice, but I loved her for it.


One day in eighth grade I brought a squirt gun to science class. I had been contemplating squirting the teacher in the fly from under my desk. It felt like the right thing to do, so I listened to my heart. Because his pants were baggy, I tallied several handsome shots before he noticed.

Unfortunately, this event closely followed another, this one in PE. It involved tossing firecrackers at the feet of naked classmates as they emerged from the showers, accompanied by my sharp command, “Dance!” My mates danced splendidly and I was suspended.


My poor, embarrassed mother talked the principal into granting her wayward son a second chance. She never told my father, knowing what the consequences could be, so I watched her bear her shame alone. I never got suspended again.


Mom’s funeral required my return to a life that I had rejected inwardly in my late teens, but not outwardly until my thirties. Why the gap? Because I knew it would break her heart.


I was right. When she found out, I began to receive letters like this one:

Dear Denny,

It’s 4:00 AM. I’ve been up all night praying for you. Please read your Bible. Come back to Jesus. I want us all to be together in heaven.

I love you.


My eyes swell with tears as I type these words.


There could never be a return to my people on a spiritual level, but when I returned to say my goodbye, I found a group that has softened. They emphasize love more and judgment less. Their warmth toward me touched my heart. The service was what she wanted it to be. I cried throughout. The next day my people and I parted, perhaps for the last time, but in peace.


As I scan my memories of the people who populated my childhood, my mother emerges as the one who most made me feel loved. She was my rock, and I simply adored her.