My journey to Parenting Beyond Belief has been a long one, filled with questions, confusion, reason, logic, and finally—at least some degree of clarity. My husband and I have quite the task at hand in encouraging our children to embrace freethought and skepticism.
A little background on my history will provide some clarity. I was raised in what I call a “theistically neutral” home with parents whom were raised Catholic and reared in Catholic schools. They chose not to raise my brother and me as Catholics and we were largely left to our own to decide our beliefs. At 17, I entered a Church of Christ denomination that some of my friends had embraced, became baptized, and received an athletic scholarship at a small southern Church of Christ university. Looking back, I was essentially taken advantage of and brainwashed as a young adult at this college. I think of it as a breeding ground. It’s a whole different blog post! However, I married young (at the encouragement of the culture of the college) had two children, and divorced 6 years later. I often struggled with my belief and only stayed in the church for several years for a reason Norm Allen sums up quite well:
“I was constantly fearful of going to Hell. This is a tremendous—and totally unnecessary—psychological burden for children to have to bear. I strongly feel this is tantamount to child abuse, and no loving parent should encourage his or her children to embrace such an unconscionable belief.”
That being said, my children now spend half their time in a Christian home with their biological father, and the other half of their time in my husband and I’s freethinking home. Imagine the potential for confusion! My children, at the tender ages of 3 and 5, have already been spoon-fed Christian doctrine, which they often regurgitate all over our freethinking home.
What’s a freethinking parent to do? My goal is not to “convert” them to atheism. My goal is to teach them to think critically as they grow and encourage them to make sure their beliefs, whatever they may become, are based on thoughtful reflection, critical evaluation, and reason. By no means should their actions be the result of following one book, studying one creed, nor the eternal promise of heaven or unfathomable damnation or hell. At dinner last night, my five year old said, “God is real. I’m going to ask Daddy if he is, and if he says yes, you are telling a lie.” I said, “Sweetie, if someone told you that purple unicorns were real but you never saw one, would you believe them?” I try to encourage the importance of not believing everything someone says—a statement doesn’t equal truth.
In our home at holidays we often employ the use of vivid storytelling to describe the history of holidays, rather than stripping them of the fun of Santa and the Easter bunny. My husband created an entertaining act this year on the origin of Easter coming from the symbols of new life: eggs and Easter bunnies. When we sit down at the dinner table together, sometimes my children want to say a prayer they have memorized. I don’t stop them. But we do encourage them to thank the farmers who grew the food and the hands that labored in the kitchen. This encourages a dialogue of “Where did this vegetable come from?” “Where did this milk come from?” I much prefer this to the isolated, cumbersome—“God provides for us” dictation. It’s critical for children to be exposed to such logic and encourages them to embrace a wider worldview and understand why some people are not as fortunate as us.
Of course, I worry that if my children do choose to embrace logic and reason and think for themselves (and I hope they do!), they will find themselves “different” from their peers and subject to discrimination. No one wants to be that kid. I worry they won’t be invited to parties and sleepovers because their parents are atheists and don’t even know what that really means.
My biggest wish is that I instill in them a desire and responsibility to stand up for themselves, for what they believe in, as well as what they don’t. I hope that they have the courage to examine cultural taboos and make their own independent choices without being swayed by emotionality and the supernatural.
And if we come out in 20 years and have found different paths and varying degrees of belief, I’ll love and support them regardless, just as my parents taught me to do. That’s the unending, complex and fulfilling joy of being a parent. In the end, I hope that families of all creeds can look at our amazing family, well-mannered children and not be shocked that we are nontheists, or even be able to use the term atheist so bluntly. Perhaps other parents that have rejected theism are able to see our family, and it gives them courage to “come out of the atheism closet” and experience the same liberation I have.