My step-father just died leaving my mom all alone.
She is a dedicated Catholic who never misses church on Sunday.
She has Alzheimer's disease, but still goes to church.
I took her last year, but my brother is taking her now.
At 84, Alzheimer’s not the worst thing in the world. She is more affectionate now and is more tolerant of children. Rephrase that: she always disliked being around kids, but now she enjoys it.
She lived pretty much symptom free until she turned 79.
Then things began to get tougher.
First, the crossword puzzles became impossible.
The card group did not want her because she cannot follow the rules.
She forgets birthdays.
She does not know the president.
She cannot even remember my name.
I want my mom back.
It is not going to happen.
What I can do is remember our conversations. I am the atheist who was a thorn in her side.
KJ: Hi mom, how are you doing? Did you go to church this weekend?
Mom: Of course, but I don’t see why I can’t drive any more. Did you go to church?
KJ: Unless I’m taking you, I really don’t go to church.
Mom: Why don’t you go to church? I have failed as a mother.
KJ: Look mom, I can understand why it’s so important to you that I go to church. You yourself haven’t missed church in what, over 50 years.
Mom: Well, I’ve probably missed a few times in 50 years. But you have missed more than that this past year.
KJ: I’ve probably missed more in the past month.
Mom: Oh, I have failed as a mother!
KJ: Come on mom, do you really believe that? You insisted that I graduate from college. I have. You bugged me constantly about getting married. I finally did. You wanted me to have kids. Now I have two. I have a job that pays well. So you have failed? If you could trade any one of those if I would just go to church every Sunday, which one should I give up? The happy marriage? The two kids? The college education or my job?
Mom: Don’t be so glib young man. Believing in God means that you have everlasting life in heaven. I want my son to have a future beyond life on Earth, not to be stuck for all eternity in hell. All of the things you mentioned make me proud, but you not going to heaven makes me feel like I’ve failed.
KJ: What does heaven mean to you?
Mom: You know, happiness after you die. No one knows exactly what, but it’s a lot better than hell (laughs). I don’t want you toiling around in pain until the end of time.
KJ: You know what makes me the most happy? Finishing something that took a lot of effort. Like reading a book that’s 1,000 pages. So I guess heaven is going to be a lot of time spent on something followed by moments of complete bliss.
Mom: (Giggles) The ways of God are not to be understood by mere people. Don’t act like you know the answers because it’s impossible to understand. What do you think heaven is?
KJ: Well I don’t really believe in heaven or hell, but it could be a metaphor for old age. As you get older, if you’ve lived a good life, you are in heaven. You are proud of your kids, they come to visit you; you have friends. If you are in hell, then you are depressed thinking about how poorly your children turned out, they don’t visit you; you don’t have any friends.
Mom: So by that definition, am I in heaven or hell?
KJ: You raised wonderful children! That should bring you some heaven.
Mom: I guess so, not that I really agree with your heaven and hell.
KJ: Yeah, mine isn’t black and white. I feel like you are mainly in heaven, but might have a few regrets that put you in a little bit of hell. I don’t think anyone is 100% one or the other. Anyone can feel heaven and hell are right here on Earth. The better you are, the more heaven and less hell you feel. Live for this life; don’t live for the next one that doesn’t exist. Heaven and hell beyond this life are pure fiction.
Mom: OK, you don’t believe in heaven or hell. What can I say? We don’t know for sure – no one can understand God. Still, you have a lot to be thankful for. Which is the exact reason why you should go to church - to show your thanks to God.
KJ: Yes, I have a lot to be thankful for. I should give back in some way. Donating to a cause. Volunteering in some way. But go to church? What is that going to accomplish?
Mom: The Lord said to keep the Sabbath. It’s one of the Ten Commandments. Perhaps you’ve heard of it? God does not ask for a lot, but he asks that we show him respect and go to church every week.
KJ: Yeah, I’ve heard of the Ten Commandments. Thou shall not kill thy neighbor and all of that. Don’t worry, I’m not going to murder anyone or anything crazy. But I do not want to follow a God who is so insecure that in order to make it into heaven, that he keeps a tally of all the times I’ve gone to church. Why do I have to fawn over him and kneel down before him? It sounds like a dictator who is an egomaniac.
Mom: You mock what you do not understand. You have to have faith.
KJ: I understand. You want me to have faith so I will be saved and have everlasting life. But what if I just don’t believe it.
Mom: But you cannot know for certain. Why not cover your bases? Just go and if I’m right and there is a God, then you go to heaven. If you are right, then there is no harm done. You just spent one measly hour a week at church to give thanks for all that you have.
KJ: Like I said, I understand you are looking after my eternal being, but I don’t believe. And if God can be that easily fooled by just simply showing up to church when my heart doesn’t believe it, then I do not want to believe in him either.
Mom: I have faith that God is going to have a place for me in heaven after I die. It’s peaceful.
KJ: Faith to me is an excuse not to think. If something doesn’t make sense, don’t think hard about - just have faith.
Mom: But if you don’t believe in God and don’t have faith, then how in the world are you going to have any morals?
KJ: Seriously, you believe that I don’t have any morals?
Mom: I’m not saying you don’t have any morals, but you have to realize there is something greater than yourself.
KJ: I’m not some raging egomaniac. Hell, anyone who has a kid realizes there is something greater than themselves. Look, once I had my first son, I was no longer the most important thing. Everything was about him first, me second. So yes, there is something greater. Two things greater. My two kids.
Mom: But not everyone has kids. And even those that do need to know that there is something greater than themselves.
KJ: And not everyone needs religion to be the answer. Having kids makes you think of others. Just listening to the news or reading the paper does the trick. Every time I read an article in a magazine or hear a podcast, I suddenly feel extremely lucky and am very thankful. And that’s without believing in God or going to church.
Mom: Thankful to whom?
KJ: I don’t know. The cosmos. I guess there could be a God, but God doesn’t speak English or any other language. He’s a force. His language is mathematics. He isn’t swayed by emotion. If the poor are dying on the street, that’s part of the big picture for him. And Christians go to him to seek out what is right or wrong. Madness.
Mom: Don’t act like you know all the answers. No one does. Maybe you are getting God mixed up with the devil. Without God, why would you care what is right and wrong and doing the right thing if heaven is off the table?
KJ: Jesus. Look, everything I do is going to have consequences. I want the best life I can, so what choices do I make? I pay the bills so I don’t end up in the gutter. I clean because I want things tidy and easy to find. And it makes my wife happy. I am good to my friends because I want them to be my friends. I don’t say bad things about people, because it will haunt me. In other words, I try to do things so I won’t feel guilty and make others happy. Why do I need God to tell me what is right or wrong? It’s pretty easy to figure out what to do when you think about how it is going to make your future self happier.
Mom: It’s useless talking to you! Don’t you want to make your poor mother happy? Go to church.
KJ: Would you rather that I take you to church without believing or be honest and not go.
Mom: I would rather that you take me to church but honestly, I don’t see why I can’t drive myself. You and your siblings have taken my driver’s license from me.
KJ: No we didn’t. You failed five out of the seven driver’s tests. The state took your license away.
Mom: But you forced me to take the test.
KJ: And now I will drive you wherever you need to go, OK? I’ll be by at nine to take you to the 9:30 mass.
Mom: I’ll be waiting for you. Love you, bye.
KJ: Love you, bye.
Want more conversations? Leave any questions from a Christian to an atheist in the comment section below, and I will try to add them in future conversations.