Wednesday, May 04, 2011

Raising atheists

Yesterday Elle told me that the little girls next door told her how the earth was made.  "There's a man who lives in the sky who made the earth and the water and even the animals.  I think his name is Odd."

I always struggle with moments like this.  The fact is I think I want to raise open minded kids but how open minded do I really want them to be?  If one of the kids came to me and said "Johnny said thunder is caused by a man in the sky with a big hammer" I wouldn't hesitate to correct them. I would want them to know the facts and to believe the facts and not a made up story.  I would have no problem saying "That's not true."

Joseph is kind of fascinated with the concept of religion and until fairly recently when we've talked about it I've always tried to be somewhat vague about what I believe.  I've used general terms like "some people think this" and "some people believe that".  Lately though Joseph has wanted specific answers.  He'll present me with something a friend of his has said and he wants to know what I think about it.  It's made me examine how I talk to my kids about religion and matters of faith.

For example, after the little girls next door told Joseph he would go to Hell if he didn't believe in God he wondered what I thought.  I didn't think that would be a good time to say "Gee son, some people believe that's true and gosh darn it, maybe they're right.  Who really knows?" so I told him straight out what I think.  I told him I don't believe that.  I told him that I don't believe in Hell and I don't believe in God and I don't believe anyone who lives a good life and tries to be kind to people will ever be punished after they die.  Once I came right out and said it he was really relieved.  "Good" he said "because I don't believe in all that stuff either."

Joseph deals in logic and concrete ideas.  He needed to know what I thought and once I told him he felt more comfortable exploring what he did and did not believe.  And the more we've discussed it the more it's caused me to examine how I express my beliefs to my children and to the people around me in general.

I have some weird issues about admitting I am an atheist.  I feel ... guilty about it.  No, that's not right.  But I don't know how else to describe it.  It's in my nature to try to look at everyone else's point of view.  I always try to think of how the other guy might see things.  I don't want to be so single minded that I start to think only my opinion is right and only my way of thinking is right and only my way of doing things is right.  Yes, of course I have my own opinions and ways of doing things but I try to be open minded and accepting.

There is a tiny part of me that feels like if I am honest with people about being an atheist it's like saying "You're ideas about religion are wrong and everything you believe in is wrong."  So when I discuss religion with my children my first instinct is to temper what I say.  "Some people believe..."  "Some people think..." I hesitate to say that oh, by the way, I think those things are false.

It occurred to me to me though today that the people next door have no problem telling their children "God created the world and and if you don't believe it you're going to Hell."  So why do I have a hard time telling my kids "There is a logic and a reason behind how the world came to be and science can explain how we got here and there is no man in the sky looking down on us and waiting to punish us for breaking the rules."?

After all, I have no problem trying to instill other beliefs in my children.  I want them to believe that it is important to be kind to others.  I want them to believe that it's not ok to hit or to be hit.  I want them to believe that vegetables are delicious but that chocolate is ok once in while too.  I want them to believe that you should stand up for what you believe in.  I want them to believe that reading is fun is and education is important and that you should never stop learning.  I want them to believe that two plus two equals four.  I want them to be thoughtful and logical.

So when Elle told me that a man named Odd created the world I shut off that little part of me that felt guilty for admitting what I believe.  I looked her right in the eye and I told her "I don't believe that's true sweetie.  I think it's ok that they think it's true but that just doesn't make sense to me."  I used her interest in dinosaurs and fossils to help explain how scientists were able to prove that the earth had been around a long time.  She's a very smart little girl and she even threw in some of her own ideas.  "And we know some dinosaurs evolved from other dinosaurs and that's how animals evolved too?"

I realize that at this point I'm still the most influential person in my children's lives.  I struggle with that responsibility at times.  But I have to face up to it.  I want my children to be logical, open minded, free-thinkers.  I have to set the ground work for that.  We live in an area that is fairly religious and conservative.  If I don't take the responsibility to let them know it's ok to question things and to think differently from the people around you then who will?

Odd knows it's not going to be the neighbors.

Two years ago today I was random.
Four years ago today Elle was beautiful.
Six years ago today I had eye jelly issues.


Shannon said...

Have you read anything by Dale McGowan? He wrote Parenting Beyond Belief and Raising Freethinkers. He travels around the states doing seminars for parents and he is a fantastic speaker! He also has a blog ( where he writes some excellent and thought-provoking posts about his own life and the challenges of raising a family to be freethinkers. I really recommend him to anyone who is trying to figure out how to be non-religious but still raise children to understand religion and even, in some ways, to innoculate them against being maniuplated by religion. I also got to attend one of his seminars when I lived in the states and really enjoyed hearing him speak. He is super down to earth.

Emily said...

Awesome post. I have something brewing on this topic, and I'll link back here.

painted maypole said...

came over here when Emily linked to you on FB. ;)

I'm raising a Christian (or at least I hope I am) but in some ways have similar problems, because I don't see Christianity in the same black and white terms that so many others do. I believe that God created the world, but I don't think it happened in 7 days. I believe the dinosaurs were here. I believe in evolution. The point of the story in the Genesis is NOT that it happened JUST LIKE THAT, but rather, that we were created by God.

I also don't believe that just because you don't believe what I believe, you are defacto going to hell. That doesn't make sense to me either.

and i think it's dangerous to teach our kids that. and I think it's fine to tell my daughter that not everyone believes what we do. What I do. And I hope that even as I teach her what I want her to know about MY faith, that I am also raising her to THINK. To QUESTION. To EXPLORE.

God can take it. Even if the self righeous Christian next door can't.

Swistle said...

BOY, I liked this post, from the first "Hey, I hadn't thought of it that way" (the part about not hesitating to say it's not true that there's a god that throws down lightning bolts) to the last funny line.

Anonymous said...

I'm not an atheist, nor am I a Christian, but I can relate to what you wrote and also the commenter who said she's a Christian. My own belief is that religions are organized ways of getting at the divine and that they are successful only to a limited extent, filtered through culture, the human brain, and the individual's character. I hesitated when my kids were very young to be direct about my beliefs, esp because they're abstract and kids are more concrete. But their questions were persistent and eventually I began to tell them what I think. And while, like you, I want them to respect other people's beliefs, I think it's ok to evaluate beliefs not based on whether they're true but on whether they fit our family's values. Are they beliefs that support kindness, equality, democracy, compassion, and what we know to be true in science. (And a lot of people consider the bible sacred without taking it literally.) I personally have told my children that I see the bible as literature, a mythical text. That has been working for us.

StickyKeys said...

I think it's okay to be firm in your beliefs but still foster openmindedness. Atheism is the complete opposite of everything that's been ingrained in us since birth and yet it still exists.

You know I'm super Christian and also super loud so I've had my run-ins and it's always interesting because even within the atheism community you have several different factions. There's not one type of atheist just like there's not one type of Christian. Some are pleasant and some are vile, and really the middling viewpoint of "here's what I believe just so you know, but what you believe is interesting even though it's not shared" seems to be the one that keeps the most peace.

Your kids will eventually find their own religious beliefs and will continue to respect yours as long as you're firm with them. I've never known you to be all "Dude, Christians/Hindus/Muslims, etc etc SUUUUUUUCK with the whole believing in Odd thing!" so I can say with great certainty that your kids won't be douches. ;)

re: the little girl telling Joseph about Hell

It's not cool for anyone to tell someone they are going to hell, but it is part of the Christian development to think that it's effective. Call it an adolescence if you will but it's a stage that all Christians go through pretty much. For kids you kind of tell them the main point and then explain it down as they get older and can understand. For a secular world it's hard to understand which why it's easy (but also really hard) to dismiss.

Anonymous said...

Oh my, I have so many thoughts running through my mind right now, I don't know which to express first! But I absolutely love the last sentence! I wish you had added what Joseph said to the little girl next door when she told him he was going to hell, that he didn't think that was true, but even if we believe different things we can still be friends. (so, now, who was acting more like a "Christian"). You are doing a good job raising your children to be kind and caring people. As you know, I have a problem with organized religion as well. But, I still believe in God. I believe God created the "spirit" part of us, not our physical bodies, and not our physical world. As far as the Bible goes, I have said many times, that there is a reason they are called Bible Stories. Story implies fiction or a way of getting a message across to people in a way that they can relate to. While there are some historical truths in the Bible (reigns of certain kings, etc)for the most part I would say that it is a method of relating concepts in a way that people of that time could understand. The organized church is all about control, if you don't do a certain thing or behave in a certain way, then this will happen to you, etc. I personally don't believe Odd cares, nor does he care what we name him or her. I believe that our spirit/soul or whatever it is that animates our physical bodies is the piece that was created by God and that it goes back to God when the physical body wears out. No hell, no damnation, no judgement day. Just a simple "going home." Jen, I know you are an atheist, and I respect that, but for me, the whole point of life seems meaningless if there isn't a place for the spirit to go after the body dies. But that's just me. Again, it is important to raise your children to think for themselves. ....
Here's another way of looking at things. God gave people good minds and they should use them!! Oh, and my final thought on the Odd thing is that Odd is Love. Pure and Simple. People made the Odd in the Bible like they were/are, full of fear, (bolts of lightening) etc to control the masses. That is not my Odd. As far as Elle and the little girls next door, I think you might just want to tell Elle that they believe certain things, but that beliefs aren't necessarily true. And she could also kindly tell them that she is not interested in their beliefs about Odd. Or she can just say that I'm happy for you if you believe that but I don't. Anyway.... Need to get off this soapbox, I think this is the longest message I have ever left on your blog. Feel free to delete it if you want. Love to all of you, your MIL.... Judy

De said...

Visiting via Emily R. There was an article in (I believe) Time magazine that I skimmed while waiting for an oil change about an Evangelical Christian who had a display in his church hall about peace that included a quote by Gandhi. Someone put a sticky note next to it that read "Reality check: He's in Hell."

It was a reality check for that guy, because he realized he didn't believe in a Hell that Gandhi would go to, simply because he didn't cross all the Ts and dot all the Is of Evangelical Christianity.

I would describe myself as a Buddhist currently practicing Catholicism. Buddhism espouses "wise enquiry and tolerance," and allows for a person to find benefit for oneself and others through a lifestyle that is reasonable and fits one's life experiences. As much as I would have doubted it at another time in my life, I am finding a great deal that is valuable to me in practicing Catholicism (through an allegorical lens).

This discussion and the conversations you're all describing having with your children are very important! A common side-effect of not practicing religion is ignorance about the world's religions. Unfortunately, if we do not understand religion, we miss a huge facet of understanding other peoples of the world and most of history.

Let me also disclose that I am involved with hospice, so various beliefs and expectations about life and death are always on my mind. Even if you don't "need" religion as a guide in life, we all face the death of others and our own some day. Not only children, but many adults are confused and suffer more - or different - grief than they might if they only spent some time and did some work thinking about what they believe and talking about it with others.

Lindsay said...

Great post Jen!

Magpie said...

Emily sent me. I'm an atheist, raising a child who's come home and talked about God and who's told me there is no God and who once asked about Granny going to heaven. So yeah, we have these conversations. At core, though, I want her to think for herself - be tolerant, be inquisitive - and if she somehow finds that a god, an Odd, some goddesses are in the picture, so be it.

Stimey said...

Odd. I love it. That's so much more perfect that I could ever imagine. Of course Quinn identified a church the other day because "it has that 'T symbol' on it."

You make some really good points here. I always tend to say, "some people believe..." but your words here make a lot of sense. I may have to rethink my wording. Unless, of course, in case of the rapture, in which case, well, you know.