"It's kind of hip to be a gay atheist when you work at Harvard," my mom joked when I agreed to give a speech in Mobile, Ala., two years ago. "Not so much most everywhere else."
Then she added, with a more serious tone: "I won't tell you not to go, but please be careful."
My mother stopped telling me what to do a long time ago, because she herself has always gone her own way. One of four children -- all of whom were given a name beginning with a T -- my mother displayed an unflinching temerity from a young age. As a kid she carved her sister's name into the wooden paneling of her childhood home with a knife; when confronted as the culprit, she simply shrugged. Her mother chuckled, recalling her own youthful brashness -- she had worn a dirt-smudged cowgirl outfit to school on a regular basis, despite her parents' adamant protestations. Surely she saw her own blunt, wily, independent nature at work in her daughter.
Sure enough, my mother was a leader from a young age. She was a popular student who defied expectations by singing and dancing her way through the lead role in a school production of Peter Pan. Because of her scholastic achievements, everyone around her assumed she would go on to college; instead, she once again bucked assumptions and married at 19, producing four children in quick succession. When people said that she had made an unwise choice, she simply told them that they were wrong.
This audacity was perhaps her defining characteristic -- until her mother was diagnosed with cancer. My mother was only 21 years old at the time, and her adulthood was forged in the fire of her mother's chemotherapy, doctor's visits and slow decline. Watching her own mother die tempered my mother's bravado with the realization that it is as important to be kind to others as it is to be outspoken and self-reliant.
Having carved out her own path, my mother was unsurprised that her own four children -- all of whom were given a name beginning with a C -- developed into people of disparate dispositions and interests, uniformly defined only by two characteristics: self-direction and nerve. From a young age, I was unflinchingly frank. When a cousin approached me at his birthday party and asked if I liked the ice cream, I matter-of-factly replied, "It's not ice cream -- it's sherbet."
That outsized self-confidence evaporated when, just months after converting to hard-line evangelical Christianity at the age of 11, I realized I was gay. For years I tried to change my sexual orientation through my Born Again religious practices, and in the process I lost much of myself. Eventually my mother discovered a journal I was keeping to detail my struggle; she responded by taking me to talk to a pastor who offered an LGBT-inclusive perspective on Christian theology. As I began to walk the road back to self-acceptance, she drove me to support groups, connected me with resources and made me feel loved. But she was far from overbearing -- after all, she wanted me to develop the same sense of independence that had so enriched her own life.
But my path deviated from hers as the confidence I regained became rooted in a kind of defensiveness. I eventually decided I was an atheist, which served as an excuse for superiority and tribalistic behavior. Years passed before I realized how much the us-vs.-them mindset I had adopted -- my atheism against a world of religious others -- clashed with my aspirations for a just world. Belittling or dismissing those with different convictions prevented me from seeing them as human. Like my mother's experiences caring for her dying mother, the struggles of my youth eventually infused my boldness with compassion and an appreciation for nuance and complexity. And so today I work as an atheist organizer and interfaith activist, striving to increase goodwill and understanding between people of different religious and nonreligious identities with the hope that they will unite in the common causes of social justice and religious pluralism.
Most parents don't imagine their children growing up to become gay atheist interfaith activists. When my mother visits her Curves for Women gym in rural Minnesota, fellow exercisers frequently ask about her children. When she gets to me, she explains that I've recently written a book detailing my journey to self-acceptance as a gay man and my advocacy for American religious minorities such as Muslims and Sikhs. "And it's about how and why he became an atheist," she concludes, fortifying herself for (at best) a confused expression, crinkled nose, frown and furrowed brow. Though the stigma attached to atheism often elicits a more unpleasant response than other aspects of my work, she doesn't shy away from the ensuing discussion, no matter how uncharitable her interlocutor may be. If my mother taught me anything, it's that you can be both fiercely loving and fiercely honest about what matters to you, even in the face of disdain. Throughout my life, my mother has shown me that when you approach challenging discussions in a kind, open, personal and non-defensive manner -- when you act out of love, even when that is difficult -- the odds are greater that you will be greeted with curiosity or compassion rather than with hostility, even as you are unapologetic about your own convictions.
This balance has never been as easy for me as it seems to be for my mother, and I have to constantly remind myself that advancing tolerance and pluralism requires patience in the face of significant resistance. My efforts to build understanding between atheistic and religious communities consistently put me at the center of heated debates and even threats of violence.
I have learned to shrug off the personal attacks, but last summer a group of bloggers spotted a comment of support that my mother left on my personal Facebook page. Noticing that she and I shared a last name, they and their readers proceeded to mock us both and mischaracterize her as a "helicopter mom." I picked up my phone and called my mother immediately, ready to apologize for the scorn and derision being directed at her. But before I could say a word, I heard her laugh.
"Go refresh that website," she said. "I've already left a comment."
Sure enough, she replied to their derision with grace and kindness, but ended by saying: "[My] comment was made not as 'Chris's Mom' but as a person with an opinion. For that, as well as the adult friendship I have with all four of my adult children -- I make no apologies."
My mom is almost never embarrassed to speak her mind. But she also makes an effort not to be mean, abrasive or hurtful to others in doing so. She taught me to be strong, but she also showed me how to be kind. Surveying the innumerable and frequently volatile disagreements and conflicts over the veracity of religious claims in the world today, I think we could all stand to follow her lead a bit more often.