Atheist Mom Talks ‘Losing’ Her Religion While Raising 7 Kids

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By Maressa Brown

Thirteen years ago, Sarah Morehead was a practicing evangelical Southern Baptist, following in the footsteps of her family by attempting to meet the requirements of being a good Christian wife and mother. But when a series of events caused her to question her beliefs and upbringing, Sarah ended up letting go of religion altogether. Now a 38-year-old mom of seven living in Arvada, Colorado, she is the Executive Director of Recovering from Religion, an organization for people who have decided that religion no longer has a place in their life, but are still dealing with the after-effects in some way or another.

She’s also parenting her brood — aged 24, 21, 18, 13, 6, 4, and 18 months — in a completely different way than she did over a decade ago.

Sarah spoke with The Stir today about what caused her to change her beliefs, the lessons she now teaches her kids, and what she advises other atheist moms …

What was your own upbringing like, and how did it lead to your current beliefs?
I grew up evangelical Southern Baptist. In our church, we believe that any encounter we have, God put people in front of us to lead them to Christ. As I got older, my first marriage, my husband was a Promise Keeper, and we were Sunday school teachers, volunteered heavily in the church. All of those things you’re supposed to do. There were a lot of times that I had questions that people didn’t seem to have clear answers for. Even things as small as logistics, miracles in the bibles, and things like that. Those aren’t questions people are really fond of [in the church]. The questions were always there, but you’re always taught that when you ask too many questions, and you doubt too heavily, that’s Satan pulling you away from God. So I always had that in the back of my mind, that if I was a better Christian, I wouldn’t have those questions in the first place. I would just accept it. My husband at the time was very violent and abusive, which was condoned by our church leaders. They don’t overtly say it’s okay to hit your wife, but they do a lot of preaching how to maintain head of household status. [But] I grew up believing that divorce was wrong. Eventually, our oldest daughter was about 11 and she was mouthing off, and he picked her up and he threw her into the wall. And for whatever reason, that was it for me. That crossed the line for me. So I told him to leave, and I ended up going to our church’s benevolence committee. I explained what had happened. It was very focused on what had gone wrong and what I needed to do to save this marriage. And in that conversation, I had asked for about $600 to help pay bills and get some food, and they said they had to pray about it, and Jesus had apparently told them not to do it. So I left the meeting very upset, mortified, ashamed, heartbroken. I couldn’t figure out why God would torture our family this way, and as I pushed out of the door to leave the building, I accidentally pushed into someone who was working on the door, and they were putting on glass etching art, decorating the glass. I had this kind of surreal moment, going, “That had to cost a hell of a lot more than $600!” It was one of the first microscopic moments of me thinking, “This really doesn’t make sense.”

How did your parenting change as you started to change your beliefs?
My first “set,” as I like to call them, [my ex-husband and I] parented from a very authoritative viewpoint. It was everything that their father said goes, regardless of whether it’s right or wrong, and my job is to make sure that they’re obedient, and do all of these things that make them good little soldiers for Christ. I remarried, and my younger kids, we have a completely different parenting style. We firmly believe in respectful parenting. We are very intentionally parenting in a way that makes sure our children know they have the right to be respected, and we demonstrate that by respecting them. My husband and I grew up fundamentalist, and it’s tough to parent from a perspective you’ve never experienced — literally, such a blind spot you don’t understand the concept. We don’t want to swing the other way and go to totally permissive parenting. We’re very big on boundaries, which is another thing that religion teaches people to ignore. When you think of the concept of God, God is in your heart, in your mind. I remember that, as I child, I was consoled when my grandmother died that she is able to hear all of my thoughts and see inside my heart like Jesus. A few days later, I was going to the bathroom, and I was horrified thinking my grandmother was watching me pee. I remember saying a prayer and asking God to please turn that feature off for just a little bit, so I could go to the bathroom with some privacy. You’re not allowed to have private thoughts. So we are very intentional about teaching personal respect and recognizing other people’s limits and your own limits. It’s a lot of work now!

How did the conversations with your kids go when you started to change your beliefs?
With my oldest kids, it was definitely a process. We have homeschooled for upteen million years, so I’m a big fan of learning as an experience, not a planned out 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. thing. So as I was learning all of this, and we would talk about it. As I started moving away from my religious beliefs, I really did struggle with thinking, “I don’t think what I taught them is right. I think I made a mistake.” But how do convey what you’re learning, and how different it might be from what you have always taught them to believe in such a black and white way? It’s not easy.

24 COMMENTS

  1. When I read these comments by formerly religious people I feel so grateful to my late parents who didn’t give a monkey’s about any God. I feel so sorry for people who have had to struggle free from the nonsense. Well done Maressa. Spread your wings and fly free.

    • My parents were self avowed atheists, my father, because he wanted to be our “god” and my mother because for the most part she did not openly challenge my father. I actually believe there is a higher force but don’t believe anyone on this earth knows the exact nature of it. I don’t think there is anything wrong with religious teaching as long as it is presented as ” this is what we believe” and then let the person make up their own mind. I don’t want religion or atheism forced on me.

      • Marthawannabe – I actually believe there is a higher force but don’t believe anyone on this earth knows the exact nature of it.

        Could that be because science can detect all known forces covered by the laws of thermodynamics, and outside of imaginary forces dreamed up in brains as gapology, as the study of neuroscientists and social scientists none exist. Absence of evidence is probably evidence of absence.

        I don’t think there is anything wrong with religious teaching as long as it is presented as ” this is what we believe” and then let the person make up their own mind. I don’t want religion or atheism forced on me.

        All religious or political beliefs are neither harmless, nor equal in validity. Many atrocities and abuses result from these.
        We only have to look as far as theocracies, religion based terrorist groups, or as far as anti-science preaching, to see this.

  2. It all comes down to money – as a cynic I would say that her church had no intention of going against the husband, as he was a financial contributor to the church’s coffers while, as is the case with patriarchal religions, she should remain obedient, barefoot and pregnant in the kitchen……

  3. It’s interesting to read about these deconversions, even as I’m watching my septuagenarian uncle slowly reconvert to Christianity in the wake of his widowerhood. He was the single strongest influence during my teenage years to take me out of the church, and was perhaps the first “avowed” agnostic I ever met. Now, late in his life, he’s back at church, in part I think because the secular community hasn’t really offered him the community he can get there. As he tells me, “I’m still an agnostic,” but he’s meeting all kinds of interesting people.

  4. I think it will be stories like this that will have the greatest impact on changing opinions and garnering interest. Facts and stats can only go so far. If you look at how NFL Films(for example) became so popular, it was largely due to the human interest side of the game. People need to be able to relate to others and to the situations that they go through.

    • I would say that you are correct. I have been in deacon meetings and used statics and surveys to point out problem with the church. If they don’t match the thinking, they are discounted out of hand. What struck me once as interesting. I used some information from a respected Christian group, the information that agreed with their thinking was accepted. The same respected group but the information didn’t agree with the deacons was rejected. Don’t confuse the issue with facts, it won’t work.

      Much like the evangelizing process, people will need to be touched at an emotional level. Then facts can be used to pry open the mind.

  5. where does it say older children were adopted?

    @ question number four in the full article:

    The Stir

    btw, I like her point about the fancy etched glass door probably costing more than her basic needs. Local church repaved their entire large parking lot with expensive black top. How many homeless people would that have fed, instead, or clothing for children.

    • I think this is to be expected. Emotional experience is what drew them to god in the first place, not facts or critical thinking.
      But, you think that it wasn’t facts what turned that person away from god?
      Also I think “never” is a bit too much. Got any statistics about that or i just have to believe you? :P

  6. When I saw that she was Southern Baptist, my first thought was it figures. As a onetime Southern Baptist deacon, I can relate to her. The process of belief is slow and comes at you in bits and pieces. This molds your thinking combined with some basic trust, you are hooked. Adding to the problem are the complexity of the belief systems. These complexities help encourage the outsourcing of thinking to “professional” who are seen as closer to God. Like her, as I progressed up through and deeper into the working of the church. I noticed a disconnect with teachings and actions. One of the things that bothered me was how the rules only applied to others and not the leadership. The other thing and probably the most important that bothered me was the hate within the church. I could not get my head around it and accept it.

    The process of unbelief is just as slow. Little nuggets at first until the mind breaks the chains and you escape the cave. Seeing the world as it is can be a bit of shock to the system. It takes time to adjust to the new reality.

  7. I don’t understand the relevance of this article, it would seem that family abuse is being used to say religion is wrong.
    There are evil atheists there are evil people using religion as a shield.
    However the teaching of Christ are peaceful.
    I was a long term atheist a terminal illness to a loved one I found extremely hard and a lot of platitudes regarding living on in the minds of others and in the genes left behind were of absolutely no comfort.
    I turned to the human default of prayer and found comfort in the hope of we will meet our loved ones again.
    I also came to understand two important things. One blind faith is just that unquestioning, that does not mean I throw out science it means that you have to just except there’s a God and all we learn and all we do won’t change that.
    Two we have no right to understand the mind of God, again I believe in the unfettered forward march of science and discovery but will we ever understand God’s purpose and do we have the right to NO!!
    I will live my life by this way and as I get older and all those I love or myself face the inevitable end it will bring me comfort to think I’ll see them again.
    Is there any harm in that?
    Blame the faults of religious intolerance on the preachers and not at God’s door.
    I’m afraid people are the problem and not the teachings of Christ.

  8. @ – Peter –
    However the teaching of Christ are peaceful.

    I think that depends on which ones you cherry-pick from all the contradictory versions. http://bibviz.com/#contradictionList

    I was a long term atheist a terminal illness to a loved one I found extremely hard and a lot of platitudes regarding living on in the minds of others and in the genes left behind were of absolutely no comfort.

    Reality is harsh, so those who feel the desperate need need for comfort can seek it in the “opium of the masses” of religious delusion, just as others seek it in alcohol or drugs.

    I turned to the human default of prayer and found comfort in the hope of we will meet our loved ones again.

    Comforting thoughts for those who have not come to terms with the concept of death.

    I also came to understand two important things. One blind faith is just that unquestioning, that does not mean I throw out science it means that you have to just except there’s a God and all we learn and all we do won’t change that.

    To do this, you must compartmentalise your thinking to use “blind-faith”, as this is the opposite and contradictory to evidenced scientific methods of thought, which question and seek evidence until flawed notions are refuted, and evidenced hypotheses and theories, repeatedly confirmed.

    Two we have no right to understand the mind of God,

    .. . . Or so you are told by the god-delusion hiding in your own brain and making every effort to remain hidden.

    again I believe in the unfettered forward march of science and discovery

    Scientific knowledge is not based on blind-belief. It is derived from objective studies of evidence, and reasoned thought based on this.

    but will we ever understand God’s purpose and do we have the right to NO!!

    If you were an atheist, you should have known at the time, that the universe has no “purposes”. It just works the way it does. “Purposes” are invented by preachers to manipulate their flocks of followers to support them with money and efforts in exchange for flattery, comfort and stories.

    I will live my life by this way and as I get older and all those I love or myself face the inevitable end it will bring me comfort to think I’ll see them again. Is there any harm in that?

    Delusions can be harmless or destructive, depending on how they affect others.

    Blame the faults of religious intolerance on the preachers and not at God’s door. I’m afraid people are the problem and not the teachings of Christ.

    The problems are certainly arising from people and from “faith-thinking” which does not seek evidence to check the accuracy of historical or scientific claims. “Religious intolerance” – Which god(s)???

    I’m afraid people are the problem and not the teachings of Christ.

    If you have made a serious study of history, you will know that there are no contemporary eye-witness accounts of ANY of the “teachings of Christ”. All the gospel stories were made up decades or centuries after the supposed dateshttp://gnosis.org/naghamm/nhl.html, with the edited versions being decided on by Constantine’s Roman bishops about 300 years later, followed by persecution of dissenting sects and earlier religions.

  9. Hi Alan4discussions
    When it comes to cherry picking you’ve done a pretty good job.
    You claim science is the search for truth portraying scientists as modern day saints put into Google a search for any illness or discovery and you’ll find “scientists” promising cures to all illnesses using scientific proof as the justification for parting people from there money. Now I’m sure your going to say they are not scientists but they have all sorts of degrees from university’s.
    Also there is a scientific hypothesis that states infinity theory means there are infinite universes where every possibility no matter how infinitesimal small will have occurred so who is to say in one there was not a God.
    As for your arrogant claim I have not come to terms with death you have no idea who I am and what I have been through or what I have come to terms with.
    Prove to me that there is no God. You can’t
    You will probably use the usual reply that you can’t prove a negative, who gets to say it’s a negative? You because there is no way to prove it
    When you and the scientific community can put an indisputable proof in front of the world I will say there is no God until then….
    Attack the people who use faith to do evil.
    I could claim that a scientific Godless universe gives me the right to rape, steal and murder as these have no moral wrong as there is no moral wrong just a life style choices so lock up your daughters buy a gun as the atheists are coming. this of course as ridiculous as when atheists blame the wrongs of the world on religion if you believe there is no God how can he be at fault?

    • . I could claim that a scientific Godless universe gives me the right to rape, steal and murder as these have no moral wrong as there is no moral wrong just a life style choices so lock up your daughters buy a gun as the atheists are coming. this of course as ridiculous as when atheists blame the wrongs of the world on religion if you believe there is no God how can he be at fault?

      Don’t let the facts get in the way. Countries reporting a high percentage of religious observance correlate with a high rate of crime, especially crimes of violence and crimes against women. ( you can check this out by googling Global Crime Rate). Countries with a very low rate of religiosity have a low crime rate, generous public welfare systems and a high degree of equality of opportunity.

      How can you rationalise these accurate statistics? I imagine parents felt safe in sending their children to catholic schools in the past. These schools were staffed by godly adults, were they not? The ideal you envisage is not reality. I think you’d do well to look up a few statistics and find out the truth.

  10. Hi Peter.

    I think you have various misunderstandings.

    Also there is a scientific hypothesis that states infinity theory means there are infinite universes where every possibility no matter how infinitesimal small will have occurred

    Really? Hardly a scientifcic hypothesis. It sounds rather like wild speculation to me.

    so who is to say in one there was not a God.

    That is what is called “god of-gaps“. Does some alien which someone calls “god”, in a galaxy too distant to even see, have any relevance to Earth, its people or any of the claims of religions? Hardly!

    As for your arrogant claim I have not come to terms with death you have no idea who I am and what I have been through or what I have come to terms with.

    Arrogant? Hardly? I based the view on your own comment that you changed you view in search of comfort and your wish to see loved ones again.

    Prove to me that there is no God. You can’t

    You have already pointed out that you will believe what you want to believe on the basis of what comfort it gives you, rather than on an objective basis of seeking evidence of reality.

    Prove to me there is no Thor, no Afrodite, no Zeus, no Asherah, no Woden, No Ra, no Vishnu, or any of the thousands of other gods. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_deities Their followers, just like you, believed in them as blind-faith, and they can’t all be right.

    You will probably use the usual reply that you can’t prove a negative, who gets to say it’s a negative?

    A call for proving a negative is just a fallacious attempt to shift the burden of proof from those making positive claims (for their gods etc.), on to others who question the absence of evidence for such claims. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Philosophic_burden_of_proof#Proving_a_negative

    You because there is no way to prove it.

    There is no way to PROVE the non-existence of any of the thousands of conflicting versions gods.
    Do you accept all the the Hindu gods, because you can’t prove they don’t exist? http://hindunet.org/god/summary/

    When you and the scientific community can put an indisputable proof in front of the world I will say there is no God

    Which one? . . .and what effect does it have on people and the world. Effects in the material world CAN be proved.

    until then…. Attack the people who use faith to do evil.

    The problem with that is that is that such people (jihadists/ science-deniers etc) usually do “evil” which they call “good”, because some “holy book of dogma or preacher, tells them to believe in it by “faith”.

    I could claim that a scientific Godless universe gives me the right to rape, steal and murder as these have no moral wrong as there is no moral wrong just a life style choices so lock up your daughters buy a gun as the atheists are coming.

    This is just the arrogant claim of some religions to have a monopoly of morality and a ridiculous denial that non-members of their cults have moral codes.

    this of course as ridiculous

    Of course it is! No religion has a monopoly of moral codes. In fact many dogmas would be considered very immoral by Humanist values which look at consideration of effects on people.

    as when atheists blame the wrongs of the world on religion

    That is a false dichotomy. There are many “wrongs of the world”, which are directly attributable to religious teachings.
    Many wars, have been (crusades), and are being, fought over differences in faith-based dogmatic religious beliefs. ( Catholic v Protestants, Muslems v Christians. Buddhist v Muslims, Shias v Sunnis, Zionists v Islamists) The lists go on and on.

    if you believe there is no God how can he be at fault?

    Non exist entities can’t be at fault, but the uncritical faithful, followers of religious preachers of hate and bigotry, are at fault on many issues, because they want to be exempted from thinking through consequences of their actions, by the unquestioning accepting on “faith” what they are told by religious leaders. They are often the cannon-fodder of wars which have chaplains and god on both sides!

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