Monday, August 30, 2010

The Atheist Child

Raising a secular child is easier than you might think.

At age five, my son is three and a half feet of questions. Mixed in with inquiries about Santa and the Easter Bunny, there are the inevitable questions about the universe, angels and God. Lately, (to my relief) there have been far more questions about astronomy than Heaven. Sometimes the answer is simple. Sometimes the answer is "I don't know".
This is the point where the theist thinks that their children will somehow be incomplete without a cosmic answer to the big questions. A quick internet search will yield multiple opinions about the dangers of a secular upbringing. A child's world is full of mysteries. It is actually comforting to them to know that some things are mysterious even to those who appear to know everything. Let's be clear. I have no intention of raising an "Atheist Child". That would be an insult to the intelligence and individuality of my son. I am raising a critical thinker. The best way to do this is to respect his natural curiosity and intelligence. If your answers to questions always end with "God made it" that tells the asker that there are no more questions. God is supposed to be enough. There is no more curiosity.
I do not take any pains to keep religion out of my home. I do not have an objection to taking my son to a church for a baptism or confirmation of a family member. I am not afraid of exposing him to religion or religious ideas. I do not openly criticize religious institutions (or faith) at the dinner table. My wife talks about God in a benign, Deist sort of way. When directly asked, she says that God is love. I am hard pressed to find a problem with that. If that statement becomes the root of his spiritual tree. I will call it a success. I want my child to respect faith. Or at least respect people who have faith. After all, we are surrounded.
In spite of all this tolerance, I seriously doubt that he will grow up to be a believer. I say this because of the addendum I add to all of those difficult questions that he asks. I don't know...and nobody else knows either. Where do people go when they die? There are different beliefs, but nobody knows. Nobody. He already understands that there are some things that are impossible to know with certainty. There are rules to the natural world. Every child has a basic understanding of the way things are, even though they are more likely to attribute an unexplained event in their environment to an agent. This type of magical thinking is healthy, and possibly essential. Regardless of any effort to shield my child, our culture will tell him lies that he will have to uncover. He will be taught a completely fabricated Thanksgiving story. He will be taught that the first president never told a lie. He will be told that once a year, a rabbit lays plastic eggs. Tempted as I am to invoke Santa (in October) to illicit good behavior. I must be conscious of what I am actually teaching. There is a magic man who is watching you right now. He can see you, even when you are alone. He will give you gifts if you are good.

I cannot imagine a good reason to tell him that there is a place where he would be burned and tortured forever, if he broke a 2000 year old rule. This place will be filled with several friends and family members who happen to have different beliefs or lifestyles from us. This reprehensible indoctrination occurs almost without criticism all over the world. Dawkins calls it child abuse.
As expected the religious right makes the same claim about raising a non-christian. Atheists don't have any universal ethics to teach their children. How does one provide a moral upbringing to a child without God. Easy, just don't attach eternal punishment or reward as a consequence for behavior. In our house we call it "being nice". It works well.
Tell me which is more moral: Making a decision because it is the right thing to do. Or making a decision with the expectation that a cosmic check will go into the "good" column.
When asked the question by the well meaning theist about how I know the difference between right and wrong. [When I don't feel the need to point out the moral atrocities of the good book] I often say that I am a good person because I choose to be. I lead by example. Not because Santa is watching. Respect and intelligence.
When asked, "What is heaven?" I tell him that different people have different beliefs and encourage him to ask others and evaluate the different answers. I will trust in his intelligence to seek out the answers to his questions. And to continue questioning when the answers received are unsatisfactory. This will evolve into the understanding that anyone who claims to know the unknowable will need facts to support their truths. When he eventually asks me if I believe in God, I will tell the truth. Because I respect him. And because its "not nice" to lie.


Maria Lucia said...

Thank you.

paul said...

i like to read this every so often to feel refreshed and renewed. thanks.