It is a night I will never forget. I was sitting in my car in the parking lot outside my apartment. I was about to make a phone call that would change everything. I couldn’t help but wonder if at that very moment my mother was relaxing in her chair at home, watching a favorite TV show or reading a favorite book. This is something she often did on weekend evenings. She was completely unaware of the bomb that was about to drop. At the same time, I was also in full control of whether the bomb would be dropped that night, the next night or if it even dropped at all. I had certainly considered taking this secret with me to the grave or at the least keeping it with me for a few more years. Nothing was forcing me to tell her. On the other hand, suppressing my secret for another day, another week or another year had become entirely unbearable. I had to say something.
I grew up in a conservative Christian home. I can remember only a handful of times that our family did not go to church on a Sunday. God was a big part of my family’s life. I remember as a child asking my mother many questions about God and the Bible. I remember asking her about the End Times and when Jesus would return. I also remember asking her what God would think if someday I dated or married a catholic girl. This was all hypothetical of course and had nothing to do with the cute girl who sat next to me in 6th grade. Throughout the years, my mother was the one who I talked with about faith more than anyone else. Around the age of 15 I began to take my faith more seriously. I started to listen to the Christian radio station and borrowed a few of my mom’s Christian cassette tapes. This was also around the time that I began reading the Bible on my own. By the end of High School I was a deeply devout and passionate Christian. My faith was becoming my own, having been carefully guided and shaped by my parents through the years.
By the age of 23 my wife and I were married with two children. Our decision to immediately have children was based on our belief that God did not intend Christians to use birth control. That is another story altogether. During this time I was pursuing my Bachelor’s degree in Biblical Studies with the intention of becoming a pastor. Needless to say, the course for my life seemed clear. There was nothing I was more certain about. It was inconceivable that just two years later I would no longer consider myself a Christian.
So there I was, sitting in my car and faced with telling my mother that I did not believe in God. As I mentioned previously, I didn’t have to tell her that night. I didn’t have to tell her at all. But I couldn’t take it anymore. The previous Easter I remember we had gone to my parent’s house for the annual Easter egg hunt and dinner. As we were walking out the door my mom chanted a familiar saying to my two young boys, “He has risen!” The appropriate Christian response to this is to respond back, “He has risen indeed!” However, I had not passed this mantra down to my children because I did not believe it to be true anymore. I made a comment to my mom at that moment that the boys had not learned this yet. She thought nothing of it. They were only 3 and 5 years old at the time. It was this little exchange as we left her house that made it clear to me that I could not go on pretending for much longer. It was that, in addition to being asked to pray at weddings, family gatherings, etc. I felt so conflicted inside because on the one hand I wanted to keep the peace in the family and let things continue as they had for many years. On the other hand, I felt like a fake by keeping this secret inside. I’m not good at pretending to be somebody that I am not. I knew the day would soon come when I had to be honest and let my family know that things had changed.
A month after my 28th birthday, that day had come. Thanksgiving and Christmas were still a month or two away and there was not another Hilliker family birthday for a while. In other words, it was a better time than most to break the news. I had given a lot of thought to timing. I wanted to give my mom a chance to process what I was telling her and definitely not around a birthday or holiday. I had given some thought to telling her in person, but I decided if I told her by phone that this would provide her with the opportunity to hang up if things got overwhelming. I knew the conversation would not last incredibly long. In all honesty, it also would have been pretty difficult to tell her in person.
I was sitting alone in my car just waiting to get up the nerve to call. I had also recently been inspired to come out as an atheist when reading the book The God Delusion, by Richard Dawkins. At the end of the book he takes time to encourage new atheists to come out. It motivated me and was the final push I needed to make the call. When she picked up the phone she answered with such a warm and happy tone, “Hi Steven.” My stomach was in knots already. I tried to make small talk for a few minutes to put off the inevitable. I wasn’t very good at it. I tried to work into the topic as slowly as possible. This type of news doesn’t go over well in general. My mom was going to be devastated.
I eventually got up the nerve to say that my opinions about God and Christianity had changed. She asked me to clarify. Her tone began to sound concerned. It took me some time to respond. After a long-winded round-a-bout reply, I eventually got around to saying it, “I don’t believe in God anymore.” Her response will be etched in my memory forever, “Steven, you’re breaking my heart.” Truth be told, it was breaking my heart too. There was nothing in my mother’s life that meant more to her than faith. To know that one of her children had left the faith was for her, an unbearable thought. My news had blind-sided her. It broke her heart. In that moment, I felt as if I had betrayed her.
All these years later it still feels so horrible when I think about it. What made it worse was my understanding that she was experiencing intense emotional pain and that I was the cause of that pain. I knew I had to be true to myself and to my opinions and feelings about God, but that did not lessen the crushing impact of that moment.
She asked me to explain my reasoning, which I did in more detail than I think she was hoping for. My journey from faith to non-belief was very academic. After obtaining a four-year degree in Biblical Studies, one thing was clear to me: The Bible was a very human book. I had knowledge of mistakes, errors and human influences that for me prevented any misconception about the Bible being divinely inspired at all. For others it may be the suffering they see in the world or an unanswered prayer, but for me it ultimately came down to the facts about the Bible. Nevertheless, I still hold a very nostalgic feeling toward the Bible, although that may seem peculiar to some. I enjoy reading it from time to time and have my favorite verses even today. One of these verses in fact helped me in my transition from Christian to non-believer. 1 Samuel 16:7 says, “Man looks at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart.” What this verse meant to me was that no matter what people would think of me and my new opinions, if God did exist he would understand my heart, my motivations and the sincerity of my doubts. I never doubted because I was upset with God. I never doubted because God didn’t answer my prayers. I doubted because the Bible gave me reason to doubt. If there was a way that God could explain the human influences, errors and mistakes, then I of all people was ready to listen. I had built my whole life, family and career goals around the Bible. There was nothing more important to me than my relationship with God. I knew that God knew that too. I knew that he would surely understand my heart and the intellectual sincerity of my doubts. So, I put my faith in the fact that God knew my questions came from a place of honesty. This is what I explained to my mother. If God exists, then he understands my doubts and I am open to hear his answers.
My mother didn’t last much longer on the phone call. The emotional impact was intense on both ends of the phone. At some point I remember her telling me that she needed to get off the phone. We quickly and uncomfortably said goodbye and it was over. I simultaneously had feelings of relief and regret. I was relieved that the conversation had finally occurred, but I felt regret for the potential fallout and loss of relationship with my mother.
At that moment I had no idea what the impact would be on my relationship with my parents. Some parents refuse to speak to their children after a revelation like this. Other parents try their best to maintain the relationship, but they grow emotionally distant. I also had no idea how this would impact my other relationships in life. How would my sisters respond? How would my friends respond? I didn’t like the idea of causing so much interpersonal turmoil.
Fast forward one decade and I am happy to say that I still have a very close relationship with my entire family. My mother and I have only spoken of this issue twice since my phone call 10 years ago. This gives you an indication of how our relationship was most certainly altered, but thankfully not lost. I know that this is not the case for many atheists or agnostics who openly express their views to family and friends. To the lifelong non-believer it makes no sense that an opinion about God’s existence could so seriously threaten life’s most important relationships. It is simply an opinion after all. But to the Christian, there is nothing worse than knowing a loved one who does not share a belief in God. No matter the good they do, no matter the love they share with others, to the Christian this person is bound for eternal separation from God and eternal punishment in the most horrible place anyone could imagine.
My mother lives with this reality anytime she is reminded that I am an atheist. (I can’t imagine she thinks on these things for very long.) When I considered the pain I would cause by revealing my true thoughts to her, I also knew that this pain for her would in some sense never go away. Having been a Christian, I understood that very well. Knowing what I know now about the impact of that phone call on her and our relationship, was it really the right thing for me to do? Yes, it absolutely was. I actually think that she would say it was the right thing too. It was the right thing to do because it was the honest thing to do. Every worthwhile relationship in life is based in honesty. If I had not been honest, the closeness of our relationship would have been a deception. The fact that our relationship survived such a significant revelation says a lot. It says that my mother means a lot to me. I was determined to be honest even when it threatened our relationship the most. I was determined to be honest precisely because she meant so much to me. There is no compulsion to be transparent in a situation like this if the relationship is superficial. It says a lot about my mother too. To my mother, I am not an atheist. I am her son. She loves me for the person I am, not for the opinions I have.
In the end, what really matters are not opinions, but relationships. In exchange for this difficult, painful conversation we gained a more honest understanding of one another. Differences exist in every relationship, in one form or another. What most of us want is simply to be understood and accepted by those we care about, in spite of our differences. As hard as it was for her, my mother did this for me and for that I will always be grateful.