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.

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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.

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.

The Hardest Christmas

I was unprepared for how difficult this Christmas would be. In years past, my husband and I have easily followed along with our family’s traditions because it was easier to grin and bear it. Before our son was born, it seemed senseless to ruin everyone else’s fun because we don’t believe Jesus was the son of god, or that people should spend obscene amounts of money on useless stuff in the name of Jesus. It never made sense to us, but we didn’t have a stake in any of it. And last year, Soren was too young to actually participate in the Christmas frenzy, other than being forced by my mother to wear a frock adorned in sparkly script letters that read, “My first Christmas.” This year, however, he’s nearly two, and we feel strongly about establishing how, when, why and to what extent we will participate in Christmas. I think we have been gentle, respectful, yet firm in communicating to our families and friends on this account, but now, as The Holiday is breathing hotly down our necks, so are throngs of Christmas-obsessed loved ones with questions, demands, concerns, and expressed disappointments.

Many people who love us are very concerned about our Christmas tree — the Christmas tree that does not, and will not exist. The Christmas tree we have never had, nor plan to have. Apparently, this is a great disappointment for at least a dozen people, many of whom have never even been to our house. They seem to think that not killing an evergreen and erecting it in your living room and wasting electricity on lighting is both a depressing way to live through December and neglectful of our son.

My husband and I have also heard many gasps in incredulity about the gifts we won’t be giving Soren for Christmas. People actually seem to believe that our son is going to suffer great damage if he doesn’t peel away shiny wrapping paper from new toys on the 25th of December. They seem to be confused that we aren’t kidding or being humble or cute because they plan to give us gifts despite our repeated pleas to the contrary. Let me clarify: we don’t need anything. We don’t want anything. And it’s not even a lack of want (as atheism is a lack of belief). We want to receive nothing. We aren’t being polite or humble. We aren’t kidding. We aren’t confused or simply unsure of what we would want if we wanted anything. We want people to not even consider getting us anything. Please. Just spend time with us. Set aside an afternoon and hang out with us. That’s all we need. Because time with the people we love is the one thing we don’t have enough of. But people look at us like we’re strange. They act hurt and disappointed. It’s like we have robbed them of the meaning of Christmas. Which is funny because we’re trying to give them back some meaning of Christmas. That’s ironic coming from atheists.

I am not going to show up to our families’ houses on Christmas spewing anti-Jesus rhetoric. I would never do that. I would never try to convince the people we love, or anyone, that their gods don’t exist. I would never ask people to foresake their (mostly harmless) traditions because I disagree with them. But I expect the same amount of respect from them.

The Problem with Christmas

“You’re going to deprive your child of Santa?”

That was one of my close friends when I explained that my husband and I are atheists, so we won’t be celebrating Christmas. I was surprised that Santa was what she was most concerned about. Here’s how the conversation unfolded:

Friend: “But Santa has nothing to do with God.”

Me: “True. Which presents two issues. One: he has come to represent materialism, and has replaced the central purpose of Christmas in American culture. And two: Santa doesn’t exist just as we think God doesn’t exist. We would be hypocrites if we encouraged a belief in one and not the other.”

Friend: “But you will be depriving your child of the joy and fun of Christmas.”

Me: “There are many other joys to be had in the world. Most children on this planet don’t get a visit from Santa on Christmas Eve. And they don’t have Christmas trees either.”

Friend: “So you aren’t going to have a Christmas tree either?”

Me: “Why would we have a Christmas tree if we don’t celebrate Christmas?”

Friend: “I don’t know. That just sounds so sad and depressing to me.”

This wasn’t the first time I heard my lack of religious belief described as sad and depressing. Granted, my friend was referring to our rejection of Christmas traditions as sad and depressing, but I think the implication is still there. Ironically, I view Christmas as sad and depressing. Piles of gifts that no one needs or wants. Shopping seasons that begin in August. Stressed out parents who can’t afford the gifts their children demand, and therefore feel inadequate. Churches holding toy drives for poor children whose parents can’t afford to give them heaps of gifts. And what is it all for? I see the giving theme, but giving has become hypercommercialized. Our society has come to believe that we need stuff to be whole, merry, and well. And what we give is now a reflection of our worth as people. Parents give children expensive Christmas gifts to show the extent of their love and success. Churches hold toy drives because their members feel generous and good in giving to poor children, but are they giving the children what they truly need to better their lives? The idea that a child who has nothing to open on Christmas must be a poor, sad child is beyond conprehension to me. It’s just stuff. Plastic, disposable, nonessential stuff that provides temporary pleasure.

Not to mention that half of the paper waste in America is produced at Christmas every year. But the environmental impacts of our Christmas shennanigans are another blog plost entirely.

All that said, and my conversation with my friend aside, the Christmas Question is a big looming one in our house. How do we, as atheists but members of Christian families, participate in a religious holiday that has become less religious and more holiday? By refusing to take part in any Christmas rituals, we will, at least in our families’ eyes, be rejecting family traditions. By participating, we won’t be authentic to our own ideas of the world and our own values. What does that teach Soren? But at the same time, we want Soren to have memories of his grandparents that include family traditions and rituals. The difficult thing is that most family traditions center around religion.

Even by this Christmas, when Soren is nearly two, we’ll be faced with the dilemma. Do we tell him about Santa — a fictional character like god — and let him participate in holiday traditions that are important to our extended family and friends? Or do we tell him the truth — that Santa is a fictional character that represents generosity and the joy of giving? Will my parents be distressed if they can’t have that Santa excitement with their only grandchild? And more importantly, am I robbing Soren of something if I tell him Santa exists or if I don’t? Is it hypocritical to tell him about Santa but encourage him to think critically about existence, reality and science?

Merry Christmas.