Atheist: A person who does not believe in the existence of God or gods. I am atheist, which only serves to tell you what I am NOT, as in I am not a member of the God Squad.
“I contend that we are both atheists. I just believe in one fewer god than you do. When you understand why you dismiss all the other possible gods, you will understand why I dismiss yours.”
Secular Humanist: A comprehensive, nonreligious lifestance incorporating a naturalistic philosophy, a cosmic outlook rooted in science, and a consequentialist ethical system. I am a secular humanist, which serves to describe what I AM, or more accurately, how I view the universe and humanity. Basically, I have faith in us.
Freethinker: A person who forms his or her own opinions about important subjects (such as religion and politics) instead of accepting what other people say without question. We strive to raise children who think critically about the world around them and the beliefs they adopt. We favor respectfully questioning everything over blindly obeying.
“Children must be taught HOW to think, not WHAT to think.”
“The opposite of courage in our society is not cowardice, it is conformity.”
There is a window in early childhood when you inherently believe everything your parents tell you. It is during a time when you are acquiring a massive amount of information about the world around you and it would not be economical to first have to filter every piece of new knowledge. Especially since you do not yet have the intellectual tools to utilize as a filter. The grass is green. A knife is dangerous. An old man in the sky is to thank for your food. Religion serves to swoop in and fill in any gaps in knowledge for children as it has anthropologically for adults. Humans long to understand, so when we don’t know, we story. The worldview of your parents is assimilated right alongside what foods to eat for the sake of survival, both physically and culturally.
Raising a freethinker does not mean raising an atheist. I do live an authentic life as a secular humanist, which certainly influences my children in a role modeling capacity. But as a matter of fact, telling my children what they must think runs completely contrary to the goal of raising a person who can think for himself.
“Mommy, how does this happen?”
“Let’s observe and see what we can learn. Why don’t you look it up? So science tells us X. Some people believe Y. What do you think?”
Children are natural scientists. The greatest gift you can give your child’s mind is to encourage that innate drive for exploration. Feed that curiosity and you stoke the fire of innovation. Resist the temptation to placate. Doing so only provides candy for a mind hungry for hearty nutrition. Exposure to ideas need not be feared with a child whose heart is full and mind is free. Life is brimming with opportunities to offer your child a path of critical thinking down which he is invited to walk.
“Why are the flowers purple?”
“God made them that way for us.” Child learns nothing.
“Who do you see flying around these flowers? Bees! Bees help to make more flowers grow, and they are attracted to the colorful flowers. So the more beautiful colors in the flower, the more the bees help more of them to grow! Let’s look for some other colorful flowers and see if there are bees helping them to grow.”
“The great thing about science is that it is true whether you believe in it or not.”
-Neil DeGrass Tyson
If your child is asking the question, she is ready for the answer. We do not lie to our children—ever. We simply respond with answers at the same level on which the question was asked. Some great examples can found in Parenting Sexuality: Your Vulva is not Lord Voldemort. We encourage questioning, which is the avenue for learning, by always allowing the space for those questions and teaching them how to find the answers they seek. “I don’t know; let’s find out,” is something spoken often in our family, while “because I said so” is never heard. The whys that fall so easily from your child’s lips are golden even, and especially, when applied to your parenting decisions. The respectful questioning of everything from “Where is that bird flying?” to “Why can’t I run into the street?” is imperative in gifting them an understanding of the world around them that they can apply to their lives to make informed decisions on their own.
“We cannot withhold facts for fear of offending because the importance of the information outweighs people’s right to not be challenged in their beliefs.”
A parent found her daughter had poured what looked like soap all over the bathroom floor. When asked why she did it, she innocently and honestly responded, “To make an ice rink.” The mother said she yelled at her daughter and sent her to bed early with no dinner. Here was my response:
“It looks like she was performing a good experiment. I would turn it into science. ‘So what was your hypothesis here? How did you test it? Was your hypothesis confirmed? Now we can’t move on until we clean up the entire experiment.’ The natural consequence is that she doesn’t leave the bathroom until it is clean. Also, I might have her use her money to replace whatever soap she used, which would be an additional logical consequence.
In punishing her you are making yourself the enemy instead of thinking in terms of, ‘How can I help her to learn the most out of this situation?’ In using food as a punishment, you are creating issues around eating: ‘Food is withheld when I feel badly, so I will eat more and feel better emotionally.’ In using bedtime as a punishment, you are making sleep a power struggle that she will resist.
We all have frustrating times, Mama; just think about being a role model. How would you hope she would react if she were frustrated? Would you want her to yell and try to inflict suffering on those around her or would you want her to take responsibility for her feelings and actions, learn from every experience, and make the most of challenges that arise?
‘Now that this experiment is cleaned up, let’s think about your question again: “How do you make an ice rink?” What is an ICE rink made of? Ice! What is ice made from? Water! So let’s make a new hypothesis. If we fill this cookie sheet with a layer of water and put it in the freezer, then we will have a little ice rink for your toys to skate on! And this experiment will not cost us any money and will be easily cleaned up.”
One great by-product of a secular life education is that it is not egocentric. Our children don’t believe an omniscient being made the world just for them. The universe literally does not revolve around them. (Reminder: Galileo Galilei died under house arrest after being convicted of heresy for his heliocentric science (the sun, not the Earth, as the center of the solar system around which the planets revolved), which undermined religious belief.) It is not a gift they own to do with as they please during this temporary stage of life. They are not right while everyone else is wrong. They are not worthy of eternal reward while their fellow man is worthy of eternal damnation. Homogeny is not prized over diversity. This naturally fosters a profound social and environmental connection. My children genuinely love humanity and believe in our potential to evolve toward peace (no original sin to contend with here (seriously, evil babies?!)). They believe people are capable of greatness and that matters because this is the only world we get (no reincarnated alien thetans for us). Free of the limitations of a religious lens, they are able to see themselves, understand people, interpret experiences, and affect the world around them in limitless ways. There is no box into which they, the people around them, and the universe must fit (other than the grounding laws of nature).
Since there is no all-powerful determinism, they are deeply in touch with their sense of power in striving to self-actualize (reach their potential) in concert with manifesting the world in which they want to live. My eldest is very sensitive to social injustice and passionate about protecting living beings. He is empowered to meet this awareness with activism, taking action to make the world a better place in these areas. There is no God deciding the fate of the whales in our oceans. There are no deities protecting the little girls of the Middle East and Africa. We create the world in which we live.
“The most common way people give up their power is by thinking they don’t have any.”
“If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.”
The community that humans as social creatures crave and serves to organize an efficient society is built into organized religion. This is part of why so many atheists live culturally in religion. Joan Rivers once asked when her daughter’s fiancé was converting to Judaism. After her daughter told her that her fiancé didn’t think he believed in God, Joan Rivers responded, “What’s that got to do with religion?” In addition to choosing our cultural traditions with intention, we must create the social network that supports us in so many wonderful ways. Living in California myself, I have not found this task too challenging. I have formed friendships with other families who share similar passions and philosophies on which we can support each other. Most of these friendships were made through our children or the social realms of the Internet.
“Why fit in when you were born to stand out?”
Without the framework of religion, writing your family’s cultural script can be a fun yet daunting endeavor. The nice thing is that culture evolves, so the process of forming your family’s traditions can be a lifelong process. Start by taking a look at what you inherited. Lay it all out on the table. What do you want to keep? Why? What do you want to dismiss as not right for your family? Pull from your heritage. Blend what you like from both your and your partner’s history. Ask in that secular tribe you have been nurturing. What are the favorite traditions of your friends? Look for inspiration around you, online, in books, etc. You get the privilege of writing the narrative of your family culture. What tone do you want your children to experience and remember?
Holidays are probably the topic about which I get asked the most when people realize that we raise our children secularly. “But Christmas! How do you celebrate Christmas if you don’t believe in CHRIST?!” How do you celebrate Christ on the pagan holiday of Winter Solstice? Historical fact: it’s what’s for dinner. Most holidays are celebrated culturally, not religiously. We put up an evergreen tree, decorate our house like a magical winter wonderland, and celebrate the spirit of giving, which the religious don’t own (just ask a conservative republican about welfare). Our Easter tradition is to spend the day at the Flower Fields (shhhh, it’s a secret—I don’t want everyone to find) celebrating spring with our Jewish friends followed by Mexican food for dinner.
Mythical figures are usually children’s first experiences rationalizing their way through an inherited belief. Think about it: we tell our children that a magical, old white guy watches and judges from above and expect that they’ll eventually wise up enough to figure out on their own that that’s a stupid belief and their parents lied to them. “But the magic of Christmas! That’s not lying!” Did you state something as fact that you actually knew was not true? To your children who implicitly trusted you? While manipulating things in their environment to support their continued belief in the lie? Yeah, that’s definitely lying.
That said, we actually do the Santa myth. Come on guys, the magic of Christmas! But we don’t lie to our children either—ever, about anything, no matter what. Say whaaaat? Santa’s real?! Not exactly. I have actually found that the language of our freethinking parenting philosophy lends itself perfectly to Santa’s inclusion in our holiday fun. Our children are inundated with Santa myth through television, books, friends, family, stores, etc. He’s inescapable, in a jolly kind of way. As they ask questions, we encourage them to look into the answers. Any answers they get from us are prefaced with things like, “The legend says that …” or “Many people believe …” or “I like to imagine …,” followed by, “What do you think?” or “What do you believe?” or “How do you think that happens?” We do not ever use Santa as a threat to manipulate their behavior, and our house is a creepy-spy-elf-free zone.
Speaking of reporting to Santa: Guys, we have to have a serious talk about Santa pictures. As with all tradition, it is so important to not make choices that are not in your child’s best interest simply because everyone else has done it for a long time. If some random big male stranger in the middle of a chaotic mall asked to hold your terrified baby, would you cleave her off of you and place her in his custody while she screamed in terror? Of course not. What does that teach her about her ownership over her body? Does that enhance the trust between you or violate it? To top it all off, you take a photo and share it publicly and everyone has a good laugh at her trauma. Maybe take pause and allow your child to guide the Santa interaction experience.
We were at the mall shopping the other day when West (2 years old) caught a glimpse of all the Christmas cheery cheeries. He asked to go check it all out. As we approached, he saw Santa and asked if he could talk to him (he saw another child sitting in his lap).
“Do you want to sit on his lap while you talk to him?”
“No. I want to walk and you can hold my hand.”
“Okay. Santa, West would like to talk with you.”
“Come and sit on my lap little boy!”
“He would like to talk to you right here.”
“Okay, what would you like for Christmas?”
“Good choice, West. Here is a candy cane for you.”
We walked away hand-in-hand, and he felt respected, proud of himself, and touched by the magic of Christmas.
So when “should” the magic of Christmas wane? At what age is it no longer “right” to believe in Santa? The truth is that as with almost all aspects of parenting, there is no “should” or “right,” there is only your specific child on his unique developmental journey. The most important piece of a child’s evolution through the Santa myth is that it unfolds naturally. Your child will see evidence in the world around him and over time that evidence will paint a picture. If you have never lied to your child, there will be a clear path down which he can walk, and with trust intact, he will hold your hand as he walks it.
When confronted with the difficult questions of a child transitioning through the Santa myth, many a parent has thrown down, “Santa brings a gift to those who believe in him.” It sounds lovely enough. My concern with this approach is that it puts up a wall between you that discourages honest and open communication about something that could be deep for your child while also encouraging intentional ignorance. If my little ones are experiencing big, uncomfortable wonderings (cognitive dissonance: confronted with new information that challenges previously held beliefs), I want them to bravely and openly embrace that process of accommodation. You see, I don’t ever want my child to be afraid to learn.
My two eldest both got to a point where they point-blank asked me, “Is Santa real?” I responded, “If you ask me a question, I will always tell you the truth. I also know that Santa is fun to believe in. It feels magical and spurs your imagination. Do you want me to answer that question?” When my eldest, who is relentlessly inquisitive and always wants to know everything about everything, asked, he immediately replied with a staunch, “Yes!” When my second asked, he thoughtfully paused and walked away changing the subject. The following year he asked again and was ready to hear the answer.
“Do you believe in Santa?”
“The magic of Christmas is so fun to believe in that I love to think about the legend of Santa and imagine it in my mind. Do I believe that he puts presents under the tree? No, because as a parent, now I get to create the magic of Christmas for my children.”
“I like that.”
With both children, after they hit a point of logic that could not be overcome with their imagination alone, we looked into the origins of the Santa myth (The Real Story Behind Santa Claus1 is an interesting read) and the Christmas holiday and walked away on a very positive note thinking about continuing the legacy of the spirit of giving and the celebration of the winter season (the poem below is a great place to start). This also marked a transition from receiving the Christmas magic to giving the Christmas magic. They were now invited to join the club of stuffing stockings and such, and that excited them to no end. Most importantly, we walked away with trust intact as they knew we had never lied to them.
The Shortest Day
by Susan Cooper
So the shortest day came, and the year died,
And everywhere down the centuries of the snow-white world
Came people singing, dancing,
To drive the dark away.
They lighted candles in the winter trees;
They hung their homes with evergreen;
They burned beseeching fires all night long
To keep the year alive,
And when the new year’s sunshine blazed awake
They shouted, reveling.
Through all the frosty ages you can hear them
Echoing behind us – Listen!!
All the long echoes sing the same delight,
This shortest day,
As promise wakens in the sleeping land:
They carol, fest, give thanks,
And dearly love their friends,
And hope for peace.
And so do we, here, now,
This year and every year.
Navigating diverse beliefs among friends and family can be a challenge. Some of our friends do Santa. Some don’t. Some worship gods. Some don’t. Diverse beliefs can coexist among people who have genuine respect for each other. What I have seen as the key factor in tolerance is open-mindedness. Do you have the ability to hold multiple realities? By that I mean, can you simultaneously hold your truth while accepting the validity of someone else’s truth? If your beliefs incorporate proselytization, then you cannot. If you believe your beliefs are right and mine are wrong, then you cannot. Are you open to new ideas, information, and inspiration? In other words, are you willing to change if you are so inspired to do so by new ideas and information? If you are set that no new information we ever learn will change what you believe, then you are not. If you are set that no experience will ever alter your perspective on life and the world, then you are not.
To be clear: facts are facts, and as hard as you might believe that the Earth is flat (which the Bible states), it IS round. I don’t have to respect your mistaken belief, but I do have to respect you as a human being and be comfortable with you holding that differing belief. If you believe that women should be subservient to men, then I am not comfortable with you holding that belief (as it affects me through the world you influence that we share), so we likely won’t be having slumber parties together. I don’t hate you. I genuinely wish you well. But I won’t be able to hold your belief while in your presence. For example, I have had religious therapy clients with whom I adopted their religious framework and helped them from within the context of those beliefs, even though I didn’t personally share those beliefs. I comfortably climbed into their reality with them and helped from within that space. I’ve also had clients who were court mandated for physically abusing their children. Whether they sincerely believed that parents have a God-given right to abuse their children or not, that’s some bullshit I’m not holding. I do not respect that belief. But I did respect those parents, and working with them from the foundation of love that all parents have for their children was some of the most rewarding work I have ever done.
“No, you can’t deny women their basic rights and pretend it’s about your ‘religious freedom’. If you don’t like birth control, don’t use it. Religious freedom doesn’t mean you can force others to live by your own beliefs.”
My son was trying to play with a family member when she queried, “Can I talk to you about God? Your mom probably won’t like it if I do.”
“Sure. She wouldn’t ever not allow me to discuss something.”
“Why don’t you believe in God?”
“Because I base my beliefs on evidence. On what do you base your beliefs?
“My parents told me so. It’s sad for you because God solves all your problems.”
“So when you have a problem you just pray and wait for God to solve it? Maybe you should make changes and solve it yourself.”
“It’s just sad for you.”
“No, I’m happy.”
One of my favorite atheist pieces I have read with my children is Richard Dawkins’s letter to his daughter Juliet in the book Parenting Beyond Belief2 in which he outlines reasons for accepting a belief. Hint: It’s not “because I said so.” The best reason for believing something is EVIDENCE. Even abstract concepts have evidence supporting their existence. For example, I just asked my boys, “What evidence exists that I love you?” This was their unedited response as they spoke in turn:
“This will take a lifetime, Mommy. You take care of us all day and all night long our whole lives. You hug and kiss us. You laugh and smile when you play with us. You say it all the time. You tuck us in at night. You want to be with us every day. You read us stories. You give us a big backyard to play in. You take us to the movie theater. You speak very kindly to us, always positive. You never yell at us. Do you want more or can we go back to our Legos?”
Now the bad reasons for accepting a belief, which are the same reasons I combat daily in my work helping parents to shed their parenting baggage and author their own parenting narrative based on scientific research and the loving bond they share with their child.
“Tradition”: believing something because it has been believed for a long time.
“Authority”: believing something because someone told you to believe it.
My own addition is peer pressure: believing something because a lot of people believe it.
“My grandma tells me this is the way I need to care for my baby. It’s how it’s always been done, everyone does it, and it’s how her mother taught her.” Bam—a plethora of invalid reasons for adopting a belief and walking a path! Teaching your children how to discern quality among the constant barrage of messages is vital for raising a happy, healthy human being. You can see how easily your child could be herded if you’ve taught her to simply obey instead of how to think for herself.
“Get in my car. This is what I always do with my date after the game. All the cool girls do it. You’re a loser if you don’t.”
“I don’t give a shit what’s been done in this car with everyone else or how confidently you order me to do something. I don’t want to get in that car with you, so I am not getting in that car.”
“Group X is sub human. They need to be exterminated. Fall in line with the group!”
“What evidence do you have to support that belief? I choose not to adopt it. I will not join the group.”
Part of the reason building a secular community can be challenging is because of the discrimination that exists against atheists, which is actually astounding. The atheist A is my scarlet letter. The lack of societal acceptance and the heartbreak, disappointment, and ostracism from one’s family of origin is what keeps most atheists in the closet. As someone who was raised in a devout Catholic family, I am all too familiar with this challenge to living an authentic life.
“I am not afraid of my truth and I will not omit pieces of me to make you more comfortable.”
The good news is that a much larger number of people than you realize are nontheistic. Twenty-three percent of U.S. adults claim to have no religion and that goes up to 30% for young people 18-29,5 though it’s suspected of being much higher. Hard numbers are difficult to come by because most fear discrimination from being outed (for example, being fired from a job with a religious employer). Are you considering unfollowing me because of this article? Ninety-nine percent of scientists are atheist, and countries with the lowest rates of violent crime, imprisonment and poverty have higher rates of atheism along with societal well-being, such as Sweden at 88%, Denmark, Japan, Belgium, and New Zealand.
In a parenting group someone posted, “Who comes first, your husband or your children?” After a steady stream of “God and Jesus!,” I threw out, “Zeus, Kali, then Ra, and if said gods haven’t yet asked me to sacrifice my children, they would come next.” It garnered a great number of likes no doubt from fellow nonbelievers too afraid to add a comment themselves.
One new study disturbingly found that, “Religious people trust atheists about as much as they do rapists.”4 There is a common accusation thrown by religious people that without the threat of eternal damnation, atheists are morally lacking. This accusation is extremely disconcerting as it stands on the logical foundation that without the threat of hellfire, those folks would be out raping and murdering. Like a patriarchal family using a reward/punishment model of parenting, this assumption is completely off base. The reward of heaven and threat of hell is utilized to control the flock of sheeple through fear, but empathy is the root of morality, not God.
I don’t cheat on my husband because I love, respect, and trust him. I choose to be monogamous because we both agreed that would best create the life and bond we wanted. I can imagine how the betrayal of an affair would hurt; I know I wouldn’t want to feel that way, and so wouldn’t ever hurt the man I love in that way. I don’t torture fluffy bunnies because the senseless pain of another living being at my hands makes my heart want to weep. I don’t punch you in the face and steal your wallet because the world that behavior would manifest would not be one in which humanity is able to reach its happiness and peace potential.
My children are kind, considerate, and thoughtful because we foster that empathy from literally day one. We respond sensitively and consistently to our babies’ cues, honoring them with a respect and kindness that forms the archetype for all future relationships.
The proof is in the pudding. Studies have found that secular teens experience less pressure to fit in with the cool kids and are less racist as adults in addition to being “less vengeful, less nationalistic, less militaristic, less authoritarian, and more tolerant… Atheists were almost absent from our prison population as of the late 1990s, comprising less than half of 1% of those behind bars, according to the Federal Bureau of Prisons statistics.”5
Hands down the biggest reason for religious belief has to be the comfort of an afterlife. Religious folks often wonder how atheists can live with the cold, hard reality of fantasy-free death. But oh, life is so much sweeter knowing THIS is our time of existence in our current state of consciousness. I have such a profound appreciation for every moment. This is the only life we get, so it is so much more precious. We are not biding our time for an afterlife. We are living in the present, experiencing the most joy and working the hardest to leave as positive a mark on the world as we can.
Once we were driving home along a high cliff at sunset overlooking the ocean when we passed a cemetery. It spurred what has been one of a hundred conversations about death, which we discuss naturally as we do every other subject.
“What is that?”
“That’s a cemetery.”
“What’s a cemetery?”
“It’s a peaceful place where we return people’s bodies to the earth after they die. Remember the cycle of life? The cow dies in the field, his body nourishes the ground, which grows grass, which cows eat. In a cemetery, we put the bodies of people we care for in the earth, and we make headstones with their names on them so we have a place to come and feel close to them after they have died.”
“What happens when you die?”
“We are all energy. There is a scientific law called conservation of energy. It tells us that energy is never created or destroyed but changes form. We are all made of star stuff. So when we die, we are changing form. Our bodies go back to the Earth and their energy grows into new life like trees and flowers and then animals and people. Our spirits, which are the energy that makes us who we are (that’s where my love for you lives), are released from our bodies the moment we die. The spirit of a loved one is all around you, even inside you. When you feel a summer breeze on your face, that’s the air that I was breathing. You can breathe it in and feel the warmth of my love.”
“Does it hurt to die?”
“Did it hurt before you were born?”
Another one of my favorite pieces is titled Why You Want an Astrophysicist to Speak at Your Funeral by Aaron Freeman3. It’s a must read.
“When the leaves fall, the whole earth is a cemetery pleasant to walk in. . . . How beautifully they go to their graves! How gently lay themselves down and turn to mould. They teach us how to die. One wonders if the time will ever come when people, with our boasted faith in immortality, will lie down as gracefully and ripe-with such an Indian-summer serenity will shed our bodies.”
Henry David Thoreau
I leave you with the image at the top of this post of my happy, healthy, loved, compassionate, smart, moral, confident, kind HEATHENS.
- Parenting Beyond Belief: http://www.amazon.com/Parenting-Beyond-Belief-Raising-Religion/dp/0814474268/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1418940215&sr=8-1&keywords=parenting+beyond+belief
- Why You Want an Astrophysicist to Speak at Your Funeral by Aaron Freeman: http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=4675953