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.