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In Which I Attempt an Introduction

January 22, 2012

I have been thinking of writing this blog for several years now. But my schedule is busy, my days are full, and the things capturing my attention many, so it has always fallen by the wayside. Yet every now and then something comes up which makes me think of it again, and at last impetus has combined with a little spare time to get me started.

To introduce myself, I am a single mother of a very normal, and to my eye bright and delightful five year old girl. I own a relatively successful small business and am fairly well educated, though by no means scholarly. Moreover, I am an atheist. This latter point does not figure very strongly in my daily life as I was not raised with religion, and therefore have not had to give much thought or effort to the rejection of it. That is not to say that my position is not a carefully considered or strongly held one, only that I endured no struggles to reach it, feel no daily need to affirm or reexamine it, nor to crow about it or win converts to my position. It’s simply my view on the God question.

That said, I realize it is not a popular view, and while I am not exactly in the closet, neither do I advertise my atheism too openly, especially in the context of my business. I have seen too much of American response to atheists not too fear that my customers would desert me in droves were I to be too ouspokenly atheist. No, my name isn’t really Emilia Plater; that is a pseudonym chosen for this blog precisely because I’m not prepared to be quite that out of the closet.

For myself this is all very well; outside the context of my business I do not much care who chooses to ostracize me for my beliefs (though perhaps I would if I lived in a different community, or if the tenor of religious feeling in this country should shift just a little more toward the fundamentalist). But now that I am a parent, there are more issues to consider.

I live in a fairly small town which, while not in the Bible Belt, tends to the conservative end of the spectrum. Not everyone is Christian, but not many people aren’t. I homeschool my daughter, not for religious reasons, but because I have strong opinions on the subject of education and not much faith in the ability of a school setting to provide a good one. I am not, however, so arrogant as to think my daughter would not benefit from having instruction from people beside her father and me, yet have not had any luck in finding any secular co-op to join. All the options around here are religiously based. If you Google homeschool co-ops for my entire state you will get a long list of them, nearly every one of which has ‘Christian’ in either the name or the description. And each time I’ve gotten a lead on a secular homeschooling parent with whom I might team up, by the time I speak with them I find they’ve given up and sent their kids to school. So I’m on my own. Not ideal, but I figure fewer options are simply a trade off for the quiet of a rural community.

What I’m more concerned about is how my child will fare with an atheist upbringing in a community like this. Over and over I have heard, even from atheists, that it is unacceptable to raise a child as an atheist. Long before my daughter was even born, an atheist colleague asked me what I planned to do about religion in my child’s life when I had one. “What do you mean?” I asked. “Well, children have to have religion. Since I’m an atheist I took my daughters to the Unitarian Fellowship.” I was mystified. Why do children have to have religion? But the more I’ve spoken to people over the years, the more I’ve learned that this is an almost universal opinion. People are horrified when they learn I tell my daughter there is no God. They react almost as though it were child abuse. And yet if I were raising her in a religion, probably *any* religion at all, it would be fine. I could teach her to worship the Flying Spaghetti Monster and they might raise an eyebrow, but ultimately say that my beliefs have to be respected. Atheism, on the other hand, apparently does not need to be respected. Why is irrationality more worthy of respect than rationality?

So I worry. What prejudices will my daughter have to face out there, a lone little nonbeliever among the God-fearing? Already she has been reprimanded by a daycare provider for telling the other children there is no such thing as Santa Claus, and I was told that I was making a mistake by depriving her of the magic of belief. Am I depriving my child by not lying to her? Or are other parents depriving their children by creating a magic bubble which will eventually pop and leave them feeling that a world without the supernatural is flat and empty? I prefer to show my girl that the real world is infinitely grander and more wonderful than any invented one and that fantasies, whether they be Santa Claus, fairies, or gods, will always be but hollow shadows of the real thing.

Richard Dawkins in the preface to ‘The God Delusion’ tells us that there is no such thing as a Catholic child or a Muslim child (or, presumably, an Atheist child), only a child of parents of these creeds, because “children are too young to know where they stand on such issues”. I’m not sure whether I agree. Children hold all sorts of beliefs without having clear ideas of what they mean or why they believe them. My child believes in fairies, although I have explained to her as well as I can why there is not and cannot be such a thing. Eventually she’ll figure it out and cease to be a Fairyist. But for now she definitely is one. Similarly, she does not believe in any gods. She’s heard about a good many of them for we read a lot of mythology. She even has favourites – Aphrodite and Athena are high on her list, Zeus and Yahweh pretty low – but they are only characters in stories and she has no sense that any of them might exist. As she grows older and gathers more information she may of course conclude otherwise, but for right now I think I can say that she is an Atheist, without any understanding of what that means. After all, if considered understanding of all the implications of one’s beliefs is required to be an adherent of a belief system, how many fundamentalists of any kind could we still name?

My main purpose in this blog is to explore these ideas, discuss what it means to be an atheist in the modern day US, and document the adventure and trials of raising and atheist child. I look forward to seeing comments, hope to foster interesting conversation and, who knows, maybe even get entertaining hate mail like Richard Dawkins does.

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From → Education

7 Comments
  1. Susan Humphreys permalink

    I saw your post on the Atheist.org comment section of the article about Jessica Ahlquist. If you haven’t read the other comments posted, please do. They are very curious. I hope you don’t raise your child to be like some of those posters.

    I was raised to respect ALL people. I was taught about different religious beliefs and ethnic and cultural traditions from early childhood. I was taught to LOVE to read and to LOVE to learn and to THINK thoughtfully and Critically about what I read by being encouraged to ask questions, and to look for answers. I was taught that different people believe different things and that doesn’t make them better or worse than I am it only makes them different and differences are good things not bad things.AND I was taught to have compassion for those that are persecuted, and those that are suffering, and that sometimes one does have to stand up and speak up for the oppressed even knowing it will have a backlash against you. BUT this is important I was taught that you can stand up for your beliefs without belittling or demeaning, bullying or abusing your opponent, denigrating their sacred texts or their beliefs.

    My father by the way was brought before the House Unamerican Committee, not because he was a communist but because he had such terrible notions of believing that blacks deserved fair and equal treatment and respect.

    I also was taken by my mother to a Unitarian church when I was young, she felt that I should learn something about religion. She gave up when I was in the 5th grade. BUT she also took me to Catholic masses and to a Jewish Synagogue. She probably would have taken me to a Hindu temple or Buddhist service if any had been available. She and my father encouraged me to read the Bible and to read the Koran, the Upanishads and any and all the books I could get my hands on.

    Somehow or another this world has got to find a way to teach children to respect differences. To accept that all people are not exactly alike. To accept that some people have different needs than other people. I fully accept that some people need a God, that they need a church. I also fully acknowledge that ALL the world’s religions and secular philosophies can help people become better people OR they can help people become worse people. They can help people find what they seek or they can lead them astray.

    In the end it isn’t what religion a person follows or whether they follow any religion ALL that matters are how we treat our fellow man, all of them, especially those that are different or that don’t believe what we believe.

    One place to start with young children is teaching them about the Golden Rule. This first appeared in a writing by one of those early pagan, non-Christian Greeks. Confuscius mentions it, Rabbi Hillel said it is the whole of Torah, all else is commentary, Jesus stressed it, it appears in some form in all of the worlds religions. You can google Golden Rule to find out all about its origins.

    If children learn to practice that, Do not do to others what you would take unkindly from them. and the reverse wording that Jesus used, Do unto others what you would have them do unto you. this world would be in a whole lot better shape.

    Sincerely, Susan Humphreys, Oakland, Illinois, feel free to email me directly if you wish.

    • Dear Susan,
      Thank you so much for you clear and thoughtful comment. I couldn’t agree more, and you raise points which I want to discuss at greater length in future posts. Writing off all religious beliefs as stupid or dismissing all believers in any supernatural entity as idiots is clearly a very foolish position. The history or religion is so vastly important to the history of human thought (and not just human violence, as some would have us believe) that to disregard it is to understand nothing of the intellectual lives of our species. I will do my best to teach my daughter what I believe to be ‘true’, but with the caveat that we only have very narrow access to the realities of the universe, limited as we are by the instrument of our brains, and these are only my conclusions. More importantly, I hope to teach her to reason well for herself, not just to believe what I or anyone else tells her. If her reasoning leads her to the conclusion that there is a supernatural creator, then perhaps she can convince me too. But most importantly of all, it is my aim to teach her to look for understanding of her fellow man, so that she may respect them as a result of understanding them. I don’t think we must respect others’ beliefs in the sense of not being able to question them or to say that their reasoning is not fallacious when we see that it is, but in the sense of not denigrating them as human beings for their conclusioons. Is someone thinks machine made sweaters are better than handknit ones, I may disagree and even argue with them about it, but I will not treat him any differently or belittle him as a person. But heaven help him if he should attempt to infringe on my right to wear handknits! Same goes for religion – i will happily disagree with and coexist with believers so long as they do not interfere with my disbelief.
      Emilia

  2. Susan Humphreys permalink

    I think that there is a great deal of misunderstanding of what the word “respect” requires/demands/expects from us. I use those three words because they all have slightly different meanings.

    Many think that respect requires that you believe what the other person believes. It doesn’t. Pretending to believe something you don’t believe is hypocritical. It is being a conman (I am thinking of some current Republican contenders for the presidency as prime examples of men pretending to believe what I don’t think they really believe)

    Some think that they can say they respect you and then they go on to belittle, deride, poke fun at you or your beliefs or your sacred texts. That isn’t respect in any sense of the word. That is also being two faced or hypocritical. AND everyone knows it. Which is one reason why I think there is so much animosity. People don’t like to be lied to, they don’t like hypocrites. AND hypocrites get really angry when they realize that someone knows that they are being hypocritical. I have so often heard and it is used on the atheist.org website, “I respect your rights” then they go on to belittle and demean you or your beliefs. They would be better off if they said “I uphold your rights”. Using different words can convey some very different and important meanings.

    Some think that respect means that you have to keep your mouth shut and say nothing. That is a cop out, taking the easy way out. This is why so many people never speak up, why the mass majority of reasonable folks in the middle, look the other way, turn the other cheek, pretend they didn’t see or hear, or pretend it isn’t any of their business. This is why atrocities get committed, and then people wonder what went wrong, why did that happen, everything was going so great, where did that angry person come from, how dare he/she destroy my blind contentment. They don’t realize that their silence becomes complicity. Their silence encourages and enables and emboldens bad behavior.

    I first moved to this area in 2000, I live in the country outside a small town (less than 1000 people) not far from a small college town and 45 miles south of the place where I grew up, Champaign/Urbana the home of a major Big Ten University. This area is on the edge of the Bible belt, not just conservative, but full of Christian fundamentalists. The Champaign/Urbana area is a world apart.

    One gent, a Baptist preacher, the father of a woman who has since become a good friend, stopped by my store to invite me to his church. When I told him thanks but no thanks I am not a Christian, he tried to convince me that I should be. I stopped him short and said look I have no desire to argue with you about whose beliefs are right and whose beliefs are wrong. Quite frankly I don’t think it matters, and followed with my standard it isn’t what you believe it is your actions that matter, how you treat your fellow man speech. I ended by saying to him, “you will just have to accept that I have chosen to follow a different path than the one you have chosen. It isn’t a better path than yours, just different and it is the right path for me.” He is intelligent enough and wise enough that he backed down, hasn’t tried to convince me of the error of my ways and has come to respect me as I have come to respect him, as a good honest person. Nor I should add have I tried to convince him of the error of his ways. Respect goes both ways.

    Other people in this area have not been as gracious. Many Christians feel that to allow anyone to believe differently is a threat to their beliefs, is an attack upon them personally and ALL Christians. The very idea that non-Christians can be just as good, just as virtuous as they are is offensive. AND I suspect there are many Atheists or anti-Theists that are equally offended at the idea that some Christians and other religious folk are just as good as they are! I have stated many times (in Letters to the Editor of my local paper and in the online discussions) that Christianity isn’t superior to NOR is it inferior to other religious beliefs or secular philosophies. ALL the fundamentalist Christian hears or sees is IS NOT SUPERIOR. They totally miss the rest of the sentence, nor is it inferior to!

    I call myself a Secular Gnostic Taoist. I try to follow a middle path between the extremists on all sides. I think that fundamentalist Christians find someone like me who “preaches” respect for all people more threatening than those like some of the posters on the Jessica article who are rabidly anti-Christian. They dismiss them as crackpots and whackos and crazies. They can’t dismiss me as easily because I am as familiar with the Bible as they are, I can back up what I preach with Biblical passages as well as passages from other Religious texts and secular books, because I can’t be belittled or demeaned or bullied, and because I don’t back down. AND I try not to, though I have not always been successful, to give in and out bully them, which I know I am all too capable of doing! I can have a very ascerbic tongue if I choose to use it!

    I don’t know if you have ever heard of or read this book but it is the best one I have ever found that explains the fundamentalist state of mind. Eric Hoffer is the author, he was if I remember correctly (it has been a long time since I read the book), a long shoreman at the port of Long Beach or LA, self-educated, no formal schooling. The Book, is “The True Believer,Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements.” First published in 1951. It really is a book about fanaticism, in all its shapes and forms.

    Full open and honest education is the key. Encourage your child to ask questions, answer them as honestly as you can, if you aren’t sure of what an answer is get them to help you search for the answer, and if an answer can’t be found admit it, discuss the alternative positions, their pros and cons, what makes sense and what doesn’t, tell your child you might have to think about the issue some more, do some more investigation before you can decide on what the correct answer is and encourage them to do the same.

    One final thought. Much of the problems in our world come from people that see all things in terms of black and white, right or wrong, TRUTH or lies, my way or no way. There is never any room or any concept that there can be more than one right way to do something, or more than one TRUTH. This is a very diverse world. Such diversity is very frightening to many people, but it doesn’t have to be. I think there is room for all of us if we can learn to respect and learn how to treat people respectfully.

  3. Hi Susan,

    Thanks for another well-written and thoughtful comment. It prompted me to write yesterday’s post on respect. I’m very impressed by your answer to the preacher; it sounds like you were kind and gentle while still being firm and clear in your stance. That is always my aim, to be neither belligerent nor a push-over, clear without insulting anyone.

    I don’t know the Hoffer book, but will check it out – thanks for the suggestion.

    And as to answering my daughter’s questions, I’d be a lousy teacher if I told her I had all the answers. If I don’t know something, I treat it as an adventure of discovery we can take together. Let’s go see if we can find out!

    Emilia

  4. leavergirl permalink

    Nice discussion. If I had a daughter, I would raise her to make up her own mind. Why is it that parents want to imprint their kids with their own beliefs? Besides, it’s character/behavior that really matters, not what memes we cleave to at this or that time in our lives…

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