An Atheist Mother’s Promise: A letter to my sons

I wrote this blog post quite a long time ago for Parenting Beyond Belief, a great blog that you can find here. I thought I’d share it on my own blog as well.

Every day, your dad and I are humbled by the responsibility of parenthood. Not only by the needs of feeding you and making sure you don’t bump your head on the corner of the coffee table. (I’ll admit, we’ve failed at that a few times.) But we’re also humbled by the role of raising you to be free-thinking, conscious and deliberate individuals in a society that’s on religious autopilot.

Faithful people often ask your dad and I how we’ll raise you without religion as our guides. They seem to think that we’re rudderless, listing with life’s current and without purpose. They ask how we’ll teach you to be moral without lessons from God. But we have a plan. We’re atheists by a lot of thinking, reasoning and choosing and we will be your parents with as much deliberateness and thought.

Hereafter is my commitment to you.

I promise that by example I will teach you kindness, justice, cooperation, respect and tolerance. Because morality is part of what it means to be a responsible member of society and the world.

I promise to help you see other people’s perspectives, consider their experiences and be tolerant of their differences. I’ll encourage you to see beyond the labels of good and evil to understand the complexity of human existence.

I promise that as you grow and as I get to know you, I’ll accept you for who you are rather than any preconceived notion of who you “should” be.

I promise to teach you that you’re an agent of change in your own life and in this world. You aren’t a victim of circumstance and you don’t need to wait for unseen forces to bring you miracles. You’re your own creator — of fulfillment, joy, love and peace.

Alongside science, history, philosophy and the arts, I promise to teach you about all religions and give you the intellectual freedom to wonder, question and come to your own conclusions. And if your conclusions are different from my own, as many inevitably will be, I promise to respect them.

I promise to tell you the truth as much as I know it. And encourage a lifetime of curiosity, questioning and exploration in pursuit of more knowledge and your own truth.

I promise to show you that this moment right here is all the heaven we need. This life is our gift and our purpose. It’s our opportunity to live richly and to make lasting and meaningful change for society and humanity.

And in guiding you through life, I promise to talk to you about death — as much as I understand it — without euphemisms or fables, but as a natural part of this complex and enduring world. And I’ll talk to you about how brief a time we have in a world that existed before us and that will exist far after we depart.

I promise to love you fiercely, honestly and courageously.

A one way ticket to hell

We nonbelievers probably hear a lot of similar arguments and claims from believers. I usually just smile and change the subject, which means I have decades of responses bottled up. So here they are, uncorked.

“You’re sending your children to hell because you’re not teaching them faith in [the Christian] God.”
I’m amazed that Christians are willing to love a God that would banish children to an eternal existence of pain and suffering for their parents’ “sins.”

“How can you not believe in the Bible?”
I believe in the Bible. I’ve seen it with my own eyes and am certain of its existence. What I think you mean to say is that I don’t believe the Bible is the word of God. First, I don’t believe in God, which would mean I can’t believe the Bible is the word of God, so I’m not sure why we even talk about this. And secondly, if I were to believe in any God, I wouldn’t want to believe in the one portrayed in the Bible. He is a merciless, angry, vengeful, illogical, inconsistent psychopath who sanctions the rape of women, the theft of property, the killing of children, women, men, and so on. But if you want to believe the stories in the Bible represent your God, all the power to you.

“May I give your boys children’s Bibles?”
First, thank you for asking and for wanting to teach my boys about the Bible. I want them to be religiously fluent, which I think it’s important that they understand the teachings of many religions. We are working on this with them in a natural way. However, I don’t want them learning watered-down Biblical stories that have been cleansed of all violence and atrocities. Those stories are untrue depictions of the Bible and of the Christian God. So when they are old enough to be exposed to the entirety of the Bible — horrors and all — I will gladly buy them a Bible and welcome you to sit with us as we talk about it in detail.

“You’re not raising your children with any morals because morality comes from God.”
The argument that religion is not the only source of rules to live by is so overdone. (Not to mention the fact that there’s a whole lot that’s taught in Christianity that I find completely immoral. See above.) So rather than go down this well trodden path again, I’ll say only this: my children make decisions about what is right and wrong based on their capacity to think, consider others, empathize, and understand the consequences of their actions. And they are learning to respectfully question the status quo and authority when they see something wrong in the world, or that something can be better. Maybe you want your children to make decisions based on what an invisible being tells them is right and wrong, but I place more value on teaching them that they should do good because it’s their responsibility to be positive contributors to the world.

“I can’t imagine how you feel to not believe in God and eternal salvation. That’s so sad. I hope one day, you’ll open your heart to Jesus so you can find the happiness that only he can bring.”
To those who’ve said my lack of belief in God is sad: I am very happy. I have a great life, a beautiful family, and a rich world I love discovering. Religion makes me sad. It’s confining and limiting, to me. I’m happy you’ve found comfort in religion. We are different people and need different things to be happy. There are a lot of happy people in this world who don’t believe in your god or any gods. Some are happier than you. Some are not. To think you have found the only true happiness is egocentric. But then again, Christianity is amazingly egocentric. So I suppose this is a losing battle.

“The Bible says…”
I’m fine with talking about the Bible. But using the Bible to prove God’s existence makes absolutely no sense to me. That’s like using a Stephen King novel to prove the existence of aliens. Entertaining, for sure. But not proof of anything.

“There’s no evidence that God doesn’t exist.”
There is also no evidence that unicorns, dragons and elves don’t exist but we (generally) accept their non-existence. It’s impossible to prove a negative. Therefore, the burden of proof is on believers. Before you say that it requires faith, save your breath, because now we’re not talking about evidence or logic and you’ve just taken the easy way out.

The day God came between us

My friend has immersed herself in her religion over the last few years. She’s had some difficult times, and finds comfort and community in her church and in her faith. We’ve both been open with one another about our different beliefs and non-beliefs, and we don’t try to change the other’s views. She mentions her church friends, or that she’s thankful to Jesus for answering prayers, and I listen and nod and leave it at that. But recently, when we were spending some time together, an interesting conversation unfolded.

She said, quite suddenly, “I just want you to know that I still love you even though you don’t believe in God.”

I smiled and replied, “I still love you even though you believe in God.”

Sarah laughed. “You’re so funny.”

“Oh, were you joking?” I asked.

“No, of course not.”

“Then why did you say I was being funny?” I was genuinely confused at this point.

“Well, why wouldn’t you love me because I believe in God?” she asked.

I had a sense of foreboding about my next question, but I felt a compulsion to ask it anyway. “Why wouldn’t you love me because I don’t?”

A seriousness changed her features, and I think she realized where we had arrived. “I don’t know. It’s just different.”

I saw the chasm between us open up and I felt like something important to me — was it my respect for her, or was is it the idea that she respected me? — fall away, irretrievable. My lack of faith was obviously a character flaw for her — one she was forgiving me for, or overlooking. She was telling me she loves me regardless of my atheism as a way of showing her righteousness — her capacity to love the undeserving. It had never occurred to me that anyone would not love me because I lack belief in their god, but now I see that as naive. Maybe her friendship with me was a concession, or a good deed.

She broke the silence, probably sensing my dismay. “The Bible says that God gives us freedom to choose Him because He loves us, so I have to accept that it’s your God-given right to choose.”

That wasn’t a message of acceptance to me. That was a message of forced tolerance and festering judgement. It wasn’t the mutual respect that I thought we had. And it certainly wasn’t an appreciation of who I am.

It occurred to me then that this is how tolerance blossoms into hatred: people blindly believing in something that emphasizes the differences among people, that makes those differences into offences or flaws. “So, if the Bible said that atheists are bad people and you should never associate with them, what would you do with me?”

I could see her struggling to reconcile the teachings of her religion with the very concrete nature of our friendship. “Lots of Christians say that we shouldn’t spend time with atheists because we will adopt their beliefs. But you don’t try to change my mind, so I think it’s ok.”

“Honestly, I don’t want to change your beliefs. I appreciate you just the way that you are.”

In my mind, I acknowledged that she didn’t lie to me then and tell me the same, but her silence was defining. So we moved on with a new awkwardness between us. She gathered her things and left, saying she’d call tomorrow. And she did. She called the same time she always does and we continue on, though not exactly as before, when our differences didn’t seem like something to be avoided.

It leaves me longing for the relationship I thought we had: one in which our differences were just differences, not good or bad. Not things to be avoided or overcome. Just characteristics of one another. Normal variations in the human experience.

Many things about that conversation cling to me and I can’t shake them. I have a sense of her prejudice now, which, ironically makes her proclamation of love seem like anything but. I am an “other” to her. I’m one of “those” people who she shouldn’t associate with, but she does anyway. I’m a sin she’ll ask forgiveness for. I’m a heathen she prays for. I’m a friend who has supported her more than her own mother and father, but who she would walk away from if the Bible told her to.

I just can’t understand that. I’m really trying, though. Because I know that if I can’t understand her perspective, judgement will take the place of acceptance, bitterness will take the place of appreciation, and prejudice will take the place of love.

The Atheist’s Moral Code

As an atheist — really, just as a person — I believe that murder, rape or any harm to another person is wrong. I believe that all people should act with integrity, and that means not lying, cheating or stealing. I believe we should work together for a better world, and that we are all equal and deserving of basic human rights and the necessities of food, water, shelter, security and peace.

My morality is pretty similar to a believer’s morality, without the need to throw in the wrath of a higher power as the reason for behaving properly. That’s not because I’m borrowing some morality from religion, but because morality is part of the human condition. We’ve evolved a moral code that ensures our cooperation and cohesion. Living well together — in tribes, groups, cities, what-have-you — improves our odds of survival. And if we survive, we are more likely to procreate. And if we aren’t running around killing one another’s babies, stealing each other’s food, or otherwise harming one another, our offspring are more likely to survive until the age of reproductive maturity. We just want to pass along our genetic code, and teamwork is one way to make that more likely. Morality makes the team work better together.

Many believers have asked me how I can live my life with morality if I don’t believe in god. Every uncloseted atheist has heard this question and I doubt I’m alone in my exasperation of the small mindedness of it. The Bible is loaded with storie of god sanctioning rape, murder (including infanticide), and slavery, among other atrocities. Many Christians will claim that the Bible was written in a different time, so it must be regarded in that light. If we are to believe Christians’ supposition that the Bible is the source for all morality, this makes no sense. First, this claim illustrates that morality is an ever evolving code. And second, if we are now picking and choosing which parts of the Bible apply to us now, that calls into question the entire text.

I smile to myself when people ask me, “How will you teach your son morals without god?” I think they imagine us burning cats at the stake, having nightly orgies, and going out for rape and pillage jaunts. Folks, I assure you, we’re just as boringly moralistic as most people. 

Everlasting Why

My son is now 2 and a half, and talking in a nearly continuous stream.
It’s amazing to hear him putting concepts together on his own. This
past weekend, he starting asking “why” to nearly everything his dad
and I said and did. “Why do I have to wear clothes? Why is the thunder
loud? Why is the troll (in ‘Billy Goats Gruff’) mean?”

Soren’s Why Mania reminded me of our propensity to wonder and try to
find reasons for everything. Human nature compels us to seek more
knowledge, like an itch compels us to scratch. When I learn something
particularly fascinating, the aha moment is exhilarating and
inspiring, but also comforting. The world makes a little more sense at
that moment.

So I understand people’s need for answers to the unknowable, and why
they turn to religion for the biggest answers of all. But as Soren’s
curiousity lights up and reveals a world of possibility to him, I can
only regard religion as darkness. Religious stories cloaked as truth
only serve to stop our curious questioning. When one day, Soren asks
me why the sky is blue, or why the earth revolves around the sun, or
why people and animals die, I won’t tell him that god made it that
way. I’ll tell him to think about it all, to explore and keep
questioning, to research and investigate, and eventually, to put all
of his knowledge to use making our world into a much better place. Let
curiosity and discovery — not Bible stories — be his comfort when
the answers are hard to find.

Pondering Death as an Atheist

This semester, I’m taking a course in developmental psychology that focuses on the later years of life to death. We talked about death and dying this week, which is a surreal topic even when you’re studying it from a scientific, objective distance. In class, the professor asked students to share rituals surrounding death from their cultures. People talked about sitting shiva, about beliefs regarding reincarnation, and about burial with food and money for a better afterlife.

As the class was talking, I felt disconnected from the conversation because of my lack of religious belief. Death for me is final, like the period at the end of a sentence. It just is. It marks the end, and even if everything before it was beautiful, eloquent and poignant, it’s still an end.

That doesn’t mean I don’t feel terror and anguish at the thought of losing someone I love. Of course I do. And it doesn’t mean that I feel coldly about my own mortality. Evolution has successfully bestowed me with a strong will to survive and ensure that my offspring and loved ones survive. But there is a blankness of feeling for me beyond that, a lack of need to explain what happens next, or to ritualize the dying process and death itself.

After class today, I spent time considering how to conceptualize death for myself, and then for Soren, given that I don’t believe in an afterlife of any sort. Cultures develop religion in part to explain the unexplainable, and to comfort. What comfort will I offer Soren around death? How will I explain it to him?

I strongly believe that I owe Soren truth as much as I know of it. I believe in never lying, and that if he is mature enough to ask, he is mature enough to know. He doesn’t need to know the gory details of life (or death) before he’s ready, but I want to tell him the truth as far as I can, as sensitively as I can. I think that will keep him asking more questions.

The same goes for death, yet I can’t even fully understand the finality of it. All we know through our human experience is being. That’s what human experience is. We slowly awaken from our early childhood with a self awareness and the beginnings of an autobiographcal memory. Our early memories are gradients into reality, without sharp edges of our beginnings as human beings. We know nothing but our existence. That’s our experiential infinity. Death marks the end to awareness and sometimes that end is another gradient and sometimes it’s a straight line.

I can’t imagine nothingness. Even nothing seems like something. In my mind, it has properties — silence, darkness. But it doesn’t matter. It just is.

Theists have asked me how I can live my life with any sense of purpose if I think that when I die, I simply cease to exist. My answer is simply that the finite quality of life makes it that much richer and more meaningful. This world is heaven. This existence is everything and means everything. If we have no absolution for another life, if this is the only one we get, should we not work hard to make it count? To make the world better? To improve the lives of everyone? We can’t ignore the suffering of today in the hopes of a better life beyond, if this is all we have. There is a lot of hope and joy for me in this concept of existence. I suppose that’s the comfort I’ll offer Soren. Maybe it’s really more about life fully lived than about death.

“Can I Tell Him God Made Us?”

During one of our ritual weekend phone conversations, my mother brought up a subject we’ve both avoided for over a year: religion and my son. I was appreciative that she broached the subject, since the last time we talked about it, things got tense. She is a deeply religious person and, in her own words, doesn’t “understand how my daughter, who was baptized, can turn away from god.” Following is our conversation, paraphrased from my memory. I’m sharing this because it was a big step for me in my atheist parenting, and because I was moved by how respectful my mother was of my autonomy as a parent, regardless of how strongly she feels about god and religion.  

Mom: Can I explain to Soren that god created us, and that Jesus is our savior?

Me: You can tell him that you believe god created us and that Jesus is our savior. It needs to be in the context of what you believe, not fact. There’s a difference between presenting your religious beliefs as truth, and presenting them as something you, and others believe.

Mom: Okay. I think I understand that. But I want him to know that Christmas is about Jesus’s birthday and not Santa.

Me: I’d prefer that Soren know the historical context for Christmas rather than think it’s about gifts. I’ve been saying that for the past two years. I want him to understand the cultural and religious traditions behind Easter too — that it’s not about the Easter bunny — as well as Passover, Kwanza, Winter Solstice and many other holidays and traditions. I’m not going to keep him isolated from cultural experiences and historical contexts. I want him to experience those things, ask questions, think critically about the answers he hears and come to his own conclusions over his lifetime. My goal is to make him religiously and philosophically literate, but not indoctrinated.

Mom: What about things like the manger under the tree on Christmas.?I’ve been wondering if you want me to take that down when he’s here for the holidays.

Me: I would never ask you to give up your traditions and keep them secret from Soren. That would be disrespectful of you and Soren. I respect his capacity to learn and decide things for himself as he grows up, with our guidance and encouragement of critical thinking.

Mom: (Pause) Can I take him to church?

Me: Yes, as long as he’s allowed to see it as a cultural experience, as something some people participate in. But not as universal truth.

Mom: But I believe it’s true.

Me: I know, but I don’t and I want Soren to be given the opportunity to make his own conclusions.

Mom: So I can take him for walks and tell him that god made the flowers and the birds and the trees?

Me: First, if you start making this a mission to constantly talk to Soren about god, we’re going to change the rules. And second, — and as I said before — it’s fine with me if you express your beliefs as just that: beliefs. But don’t ask me to back you up. Quite the contrary, I’ll be asking Soren what he thinks about your beliefs, and telling him what I think too.

Mom: What do you believe? Do you believe in god?

Me: No. I don’t. We’ve talked about this and my lack of belief in god still holds true. It’s not a phase. I know that’s not what you want to hear, but it’s authentic to who I am. I also know, because you’ve told me, that you think I’ll go to hell for not believing in god. (I pause, to give her the opportunity to dispute this, but she doesn’t.) It is very important that Soren not be told that if he doesn’t believe in your god, he will go to hell. I don’t want him scared into any religious belief. Hell and soul-saving are out of bounds.

Mom: I would never mention hell to him! (a bit upset at my suggestion)

Me: Okay. Then it’s not a concern. But I have to say it because it’s important to me, and it’s also a central theme in your religion.

Mom: It’s hard for me to understand how my religion isn’t your religion anymore. But I want to respect your wishes about this, and I don’t want to overstep my bounds. This is all new territory for me and I’m afraid to make a mistake and upset you.  

Me: It’s a process for all of us, and I’m learning as I go just like you are. Thank you for respecting our wishes, even though you don’t agree with them.

We ended on a respectful note. I sensed she wasn’t entirely clear on my position or where the boundaries are. We’ll need to have other conversations in the future, which is all the more obvious because she continues to ask me if I believe in god after many years of hearing the same answer. But I feel for her in this situation. She sees that her greatest duty as a grandmother is to be a spiritual guide to her grandson and I am denying her that. Despite how confusing and probably heartbreaking it is for her, she’s being very respectful of the boundaries my husband and I have established. I need to remember to be sensitive and respectful in return.