Sunday, December 11, 2005

Raising atheists, tales from the front

I thought this might be an appropriate post for a Sunday. First, I want to say that my goals for raising my children generally are pretty complicated. I want them to be moral people, to be empathetic, to understand that what they do and say can affect people. There's more but that's the basics. First I begin with a couple of anecdotes.

We live in a very Catholic neighborhood. Those that aren't Catholic are definitely churchgoing. One day, Geeky Boy was playing basketball next door with a kid from down the street who'd just moved in. Here's the conversation as related by my neighbor:

NK: So what parish are you in?
GB: Parish?
NK: What church do you go to?
GB: Oh, I don't go to church.
NK's head nearly explodes as he tries to wrap his head around the idea that there are people who don't go to church.
NK: Then what do you do on Sundays?
GB: Oh, I don't know. Hang out, I guess.
NK eyes him suspiciously.

And then, just the other day, there was this conversation at our dinner table:

Somehow God has entered the conversation.

Me: So, do you guys believe in God?
Both kids: Yeah.
Me: Really?
Mr. Geeky: What's this God person like? Where does he live?
Geeky Girl: In heaven.
Geeky Boy: Yeah.
Mr. Geeky: Where is this heaven?
Both kids point up toward the sky.
Geeky Girl: Yeah, you have to sign up to get in.

There are two difficulties in raising atheists. One is dealing with people around you thinking that you're raising little devil children. The other is dealing with your kids' own fears about death. One thing that religion does is help to allay that fear by providing an afterlife. When you take that away, death gets a lot more scary for kids.

Dealing with others around here is not too difficult. Since it's a major metropolitan area, people have an understanding that there are lots of different religions and seem to treat religion as a personal thing. Now, in the South where I grew up and where I have lived as an adult for several years, this part of the equation is more difficult. Often, there is pressure to attend church and you are ostracized for not attending. If I were to live in my hometown, for example, I would be constantly having to explain why we don't attend church. Both my family and Mr. Geeky's family have expressed concern that we're not taking the kids to church. What would they get from that, we ask, that we're not already giving them? Most people respond with a sense of right and wrong. Well, as I stated above, that's a key component to what I want to inculcate in my children. And I don't need religion to do it. Mr. Geeky has expressed this in terms of understanding the world as an emergent system. Everything in it affects everything else. If you believe that, then you will think twice before you do something harmful. That harmful act may have repercussions on others and long into the future.

Instead of believing that you will be punished for doing wrong by some supernatural being, you believe that doing wrong has greater ramifications in the world and may, in fact, come back to harm you, because you are connected to everything else. I think anyone who meets my kids can see that they are moral. They are kind and empathetic. It is something we constantly work on as kids, of course, can be egocentric and selfish.

Now, for the second difficulty: the fear of death. This one is harder. Because, as it turns out, creating truly empathetic people means they're quite sensitive people. So Geeky Boy worries about his own death, our deaths, etc. Geeky Girl hasn't quite gotten there yet. What we try to do is encourage them to value their lives now and to value the lives of the people around them. When you think that you won't see people in the afterlife, it kind of changes the way you interact with them now. I didn't really learn this lesson until I lost my sister when I was in college. It's a lesson I constantly have to remind myself of, however. It's very easy, even as an atheist, to take people and life for granted.

What's really amazing to me about all of this--and think about this in terms of the "War on Christmas" that the wingnuts are complaining about--is that my children have absorbed quite a bit of the Christian mythology without ever having set foot in a church. Of course, the first year we were in this neighborhood, Geeky Girl asked who the baby on the lawns was. If my children decide that they want religion in their lives, then that's fine with me. I hope they choose one that is more open than some. And I hope they continue to have respect for other people's beliefs. And there's where I have problems with other people sometimes. I respect the beliefs they have even if I don't share them, but often, they don't respect my beliefs.

I'm not sure that's a nice, neat synopsis of how we're muddling through. And that's exactly what we're doing really, muddling through. So far, it has gone rather smoothly. Maybe it will continue or maybe we'll hit some bumps in the road. Either way, I think we have a good foundation to work with, even without a book of moral codes.