Moms, Dads, and Mary Karr

I. Atheism and Dad
Pope John Paul II described the connection between original sin, fatherhood, and atheism beautifully in Crossing the Threshold of Hope:

Original sin attempts, then, to abolish fatherhood, destroying its rays which permeate the created world, placing in doubt the truth about God who is Love and leaving man only with a sense of the master-slave relationship. As a result, the Lord appears jealous of His power over the world and over man; and consequently, man feels goaded to do battle against God. No differently than in any epoch of history, the enslaved man is driven to take sides against the master who kept him enslaved.

This insight is nothing short of brilliant. Atheists are authentically confused at how we can suffer what they see as the innumerable “rules” of Christianity, and wonder why God would even care whether we eat pork (under the Old Covenant) or fornicate (under either). Mark Shea mentioned a trend he’d observed amongst the angriest, most “devout” atheists: that they tended to have Daddy Issues at a dramatically higher rate than Christians. An atheist named John B. confessed:

I am one such atheist. I reject my dad and therefore God. The problem with fatherhood is dads not being good fathers, not a cultural hatred of fatherhood. Atheists enjoy being fathers as anyone. They only reject bad ones, and there are many bad ones, more than not in my opinion. If we reject God it is because we come from Christian homes where we see how God (or our religion’s projection of Him) is the source of the problem. If someone rejects you, they first reject your values because values form who we are. If I reject my dad, I reject his vision of God de facto. Surprisingly there is no mystery phenomenon in connection to rejection of “dad” and rejection of God. It’s simple logic.

The admission is surprising, in that it exposes, for all the talk about the alleged atheist love of science, that psychology is really the motivating factor. It’s not “simple logic” at all to suggest that rejection of one’s father entails reject of everything he believes in. Just because you dislike your dad, and he votes, that’s no reason to stop voting. After all, Christianity isn’t just a moral or ethical system – it’s a(n) historical claim. We claim that towards the close of the first century B.C., Jesus Christ, the Son of God and God Himself, became Incarnate by the Virgin Mary, walked amongst humanity for a little more than three decades, was crucified, died, and was buried, and rose again from the dead on the Third Day. Whether you like your dad or not doesn’t render that last sentence an iota more or less true.

Still, I know what this commenter is driving at. Those who witness Christ poorly turn people away from him because of a natural human failure to distinguish between messenger and message, and this is all the more pronounced with dads, because their very role is modeled off of Christ’s. Eph 3:14-15 reads either “For this reason I kneel before the Father, from whom his whole family in heaven and on earth derives,” or more literally, “For this reason I kneel before the Father, from whom whom all fatherhood in heaven and on earth derives.” In other words, in the Divine Plan, the thing called “fathers” exist so that we can look at the good ones, see how they combine love and authority, and say, “Ah, so God is a better version of that.” Those atheists not exposed to good fathers find this notion of God as a good Dad offensive in that they struggle to imagine a good dad.

II. Mary Karr and Mom
I thought of this exchange recently, after learning from Jen at Conversion Diary that the author and poet Mary Karr has become Catholic (it’s #5 here). I wondered, in short, how long John B.’s argument could survive in a United States with a growing (and graying) atheist population. Now that atheists are having and raising kids, will being bad fathers give their kids to reject atheism? Or will atheists denounce that as being an abandonment or reason to fill a psychological void? That is, when the shoe is on the other foot, will atheists say that it’s emotional and irrational to seek out a God to provide you the love your parents didn’t? Or is it only “simple logic” in one direction?

The reason for this thought process is that Mary Karr’s mother was a liberal atheist artist with a severe drinking problem. At one point, her mother attempted to murder Mary with a knife. And lest atheists attempt to say, “Atheism doesn’t affirm anything, it only rejects what others offer,” I think a sane response is “bogus.” While it is true that not all atheists support the same philosophers or writers or schools of thought, in this, they’re no different than their Christian counterparts. In Karr’s case, her mother pushed Sartre on her at a young and impressionable age. In “Pathetic Fallacy,” one of the poems from Karr’s latest book, Sinners Welcome, she writes:

You bequeathed me
this morbid bent, Mother.
Who gives her sixth-grade daughter
Sartre’s Nausea to read? All my life,
I watched you face the void,
leaning into it as a child with a black balloon
will bury her countenance
either to hide from
or to merge with that darkness.

Atheists raised Christians can complain that their parents (particularly their dads) didn’t live up to what Christianity called them to. But Mary Karr’s mother lived up to exactly what atheism requires: she can’t even be said to be a “bad” atheist, unless someone wants to provide an objective standard of good and evil by which to judge atheists. She was certainly a “pure” atheist, raising Karr with what she later described as “undiluted atheism.”

Karr’s conversion was great. She became convinced of the Truth of Catholicism after a long journey predicated by her 6 year-old son asking to go to church to see “if God was there.” She started asking herself questions she’d never really pondered about God, sought out temples, synagogues, and churches, and was persuaded of the Truth of Catholicism. She wasn’t simply running from the shadow of her alcoholic poet/artist mother (in fact, for years, Mary was an alcoholic herself, and remains a poet and author).

But let’s imagine that this wasn’t so. Imagine that she became Catholic literally because she thought, “my mom was very much an atheist, and was awful to me. Her pushing Sartre on me warped me as a child. Therefore, atheism must be wrong. Therefore, there is a God.” How many atheists would be impressed by this simple logic?

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