“I cannot allow my children to close their minds to all the infinite possibilities of our world and our universe, only one of which is offered by any organized religion.”
Let me be very clear: I believe that the task of any parent is to raise their children to be good people. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter what road you take and what tools you use to get there. So long as you raise your kids to be good people, that’s what’s important.
Naturally the sticking point is in defining a “good person” and obviously we all filter that definition through the lens of our own personal values. Typically this is the point where most discussions degenerate into “You’re a godless heathen. I’m going to pray for you.” or “You’re a religious whack-job. Go back to the Dark Ages!” I have no intentions of taking this piece down that path. Instead, in accordance with my own personal values, I simply say:
I WILL NOT ALLOW MY CHILDREN TO BE RAISED RELIGIOUS
Given that premise you might think this piece will be a rant against clergy sex scandals, holier-than-thou, self-righteous condescension and ignorant adherence to destructive, obsolete social policies. Let’s take all of that off the table, because the truth is none of those things are the exclusive providence of the religious. Those things are the providence of assholes, and you can find assholes in any arena if you look close enough.
Though I am not religious myself (most would call me “atheist” though I would not) it might surprise you to know that I actually think religion in society is a good thing. I think it serves a vital role and on the whole we are better off for it. I just don’t want my children (or indeed anyone I love) to have anything to do with it.
From an anthropological perspective, what benefit does religion offer people? For social animals and social communities it provides Maslow’s basic needs (the rock-bottom essential needs an organism has, without which it can’t move on to address other less urgent, more “optional” needs). It provides a sense of community, a framework for being a good person, security in the face of the uncertain and tools for coping with the challenges that life throws at you. These are the pillars of religion and they are all good. Presumably this is why people gravitate to religion. It’s a basic human instinct. It’s what they “get” out of being religious. But again, these things are not the exclusive providence of religion, which is to say you don’t *need* religion to have these things. In fact, they are quite easy to come by outside a religious framework.
If we do a little soul-searching as parents I think we can all agree that these pillars are exactly the things that we should ideally be providing for our children. I use the word “ideally” because not everyone is able or equipped to provide community, security, a positive example and coping mechanisms for their children on their own. You can’t judge people for that. Sometimes it’s just the hand that they’re given, in which case we go back to my original premise that it ultimately doesn’t matter how a child gets these things… only that they get them. If the only way to get them is from the church, that’s better than not getting them at all.
This may explain a bit of my own marrow-deep hostility towards religion. Ideally community, security, positive examples and coping mechanisms should come from within the family. A child should be able to look at any potential crisis and say to themselves “I know that with my family behind me, I can get through this.” They should be able to look at the adults in the family and say “That is the sort of person I want to be.” It is my job to provide that environment for my children, for my family. If my family goes to church, that means they have a deficiency, a weakness in one of those arenas that needs to be bolstered, strengthened by whatever it is the church is offering. If my family chooses to go to church, it means I failed to provide them with that strength, with their most basic needs. It means weakness on their part because their basic needs aren’t met and failure on my part to meet them. When I was growing up my family was able to provide that strength and security for me. I should be able to do it for mine.
Family should be enough. It CAN be enough. I can speak to this first-hand. But often it isn’t. That’s why societies need churches.
So then assuming that I am doing my job as a husband and a father, assuming I am providing for my loved ones’ deepest, most existential (you want to say “spiritual”? Fine.) needs, assuming my children find their security and support and comfort from the family rather than the church, what else does a religious life have to offer beyond all that? Well, tradition is one thing.
Tradition gives life a comforting sense of rhythm that goes back across generations. The sun always rises in the east and sets in the west. The days get longer in the summer and shorter in the winter. Tradition gives us an opportunity to connect with the people who are around us here and now, and with the people who have come before. All that stuff is inherently good, and thus we have another pillar of religion. But again, it is not the exclusive providence of the religious.
In our family we have our own traditions. We listen to Bing Crosby, put lights on the house and decorate a tree at Christmas time. We color Easter eggs in the spring and get together with family for a turkey dinner on Thanksgiving. We get dressed up in costumes and panhandle to the neighbors for candy on Halloween. Heck, we even make an effort to light the menorah during Chanukah and say the Hebrew prayer (we call it “the magic words”) if not all 8 nights, at least 3 or 4. These events bring us together as a family and connect us to the cultures we come from.
Historically, Easter has its roots in so much more than just the Christian resurrection story. Likewise, you don’t have to believe a child was born in a manger to value charity and peace on Earth. Lighting the Chanukah lights with your children the way your Great Grandma did with you is far more important than how many days a cup-full of oil burned. There is tremendous value to these traditions far beyond the religious, dogmatic aspects. And therein lies my chief contention with the religious mindset.
Take away the 5 pillars of religion, a sense of community – a framework for being a good person – security in the face of the uncertain – tools for coping with challenges – tradition, all of which can be easily provided within the context of the ideal family, and what is religion left with? Dogma.
Dogma is the deal-breaker.
Beyond the bare-bones of Maslow’s basic existential needs is another virtue I personally hold in the absolute highest regard: the ability to think. It is my solemn obligation as a father to raise my children according to my deepest held values. After 4 decades of dedicating a disproportionate amount of mental effort to the subject, I simply cannot find a way to reconcile honest, rational thought with the dogmatic acceptance of faith.
Sure, if you want to get all academic about things you can say that a certain amount of faith is necessary for human existence. Having faith that the laws of physics aren’t going to break down and the sidewalk isn’t going to swallow you up when you step outside is one thing. The faith required to believe that a man was born of a virgin, turned water into wine, cured the blind, walked on water, died, was resurrected three days later and will subsequently return to Earth at some future date is something else entirely.
Whether or not you are a person of faith, we can all agree that a man rising up from the dead is not something someone typically sees (unless you’re watching AMC on Sunday nights). In fact most Christians would agree that nobody has ever seen someone rise from the grave in at least 2000 years (and in fact, nobody actually saw Jesus get resurrected. He was there
one moment, then the stone was rolled away and the tomb was empty). The quintessential question becomes which narrative, based on the totality of your own personal experience, is more likely – the story outlined above, or a murdered rebel who’s body, given the political climate of the time, was removed from its grave to dissuade martyrdom (epic fail)?
Religion requires you to accept the story and reject the totality of your own personal experiences and observations (and those of everyone else for the past 2000 years). It requires you (and my children) to be OK with an idea equivalent to the notion that the laws of physics could in fact break down and the sidewalk could swallow you up when you step outside – or that a convicted felon in the 18th century could find some gold tablets in upstate New York, look into a hat and be given the ability to translate them into 17th century English, and then conveniently lose them before his followers had a chance to see the tablets for themselves – or that the supreme creator floats on an ocean astride a great snake, and from his navel springs a lotus flower, and from that flower springs another being that created the world we live in.
There comes a moment in the lives of the faithful where they face a choice. On one side there is the fantastical dogma, and on the other side there is the totality of everything you’ve ever directly experienced which directly conflicts with the dogma. Your rational, thinking brain tells you that people don’t rise from the dead. Your church tells you they do. They can’t both be right.
The moment you allow yourself to believe the fantastical dogma, and thereby relieving the cognitive dissonance between what your personal experience tells you is true and what your church tells you is true, you no longer need to process those personal experiences. You no longer need to think about what conclusions those observations lead you to. You can table them, pay them no more regard, and move forward in the blissful security of the fairy tale you are told. There is no more cognitive dissonance because you have decided that no matter what your observations were in the past, no matter what observations and experiences you may have in the future, and no matter what truths those experiences and observations mandate, you no longer have to deal with them. Phew. Problem solved. You have decided that the story is true and nothing else matters. In short, you have given yourself permission to stop thinking.
This is something I cannot, WILL not allow my children to do; to stop thinking.
When your mind is capable of accepting without question an explanation given to you, based solely on the authority of the person telling you the story, you become susceptible to any charlatan who comes along selling snake-oil, so long as the charlatan’s authority convincing enough.
“There are WMD’s in Iraq.”
“Frosted Flakes is part of this healthy breakfast.”
“You’re in good hands with Allstate.”
“Don’t go swimming for an hour after you eat, or you’ll get a cramp.”
Of course all this is all ridiculous and patently wrong, but when told to us from a position of convincing authority it is very tempting to accept it, especially when everyone around us seems to be doing so. My children must know that just because someone is very convincing, it doesn’t mean they’re right. Just because something is comfortable or convenient, doesn’t mean it’s true. Even though everyone around them may be very impressed with the Emperor’s new clothes, sometimes the Emperor actually has no clothes. I cannot allow my children to have a mindset that allows them to accept things at face value. I cannot allow my children to think it is acceptable to dismiss their own doubts and their own skepticism without exploring them to their fullest and ultimate conclusions. I cannot allow my children to think it is ever OK to stop thinking, to close their minds to all the infinite possibilities of our world and our universe…only one of which is offered by any organized religion.
I cannot let my children think that it is acceptable, when faced with unanswerable, uncomfortable questions to make up an answer out of thin air and run with it, or accept someone else’s, and then wash your hands of the whole messy affair and tell yourself “Well that’s done. Glad I don’t have to worry about that anymore,” without subjecting that theory to rigorous challenge and potential revision. They must know that it’s OK not to know the answers to life’s most profound questions. The important thing is to keep digging, to keep chipping away at the question, to get closer and closer to an answer and in so doing perhaps uncover more unanticipated questions which lead you down more stimulating lines of thought, and bring you even closer to understanding this magnificently improbable, spectacularly awe-inspiring, fantastic universe we live in.
That is the path of intellectual integrity. That is the path of growth. That is the path of independence, and of competence, and of self-reliance. That is the path of someone who will never, ever give up their right to think for themselves.
Many months ago my 7 year old daughter asked me, “Daddy, are we Jewish?”
“No,” I replied. “But some of our family was.”
“Are we Christian?”
“No, we aren’t. We’re just good, honest, nice people.”
“Do we believe in God?”
“Everyone believes something different” I explained to her. “Mommy believes what she believes. I believe what I believe. You have to figure out what you believe, and you can believe whatever you want. The important thing is that before you decide whether or not you believe it, you have to think really, REALLY hard about it. Then you think really, REALLY hard about it again. If after all that thinking it still makes sense and doesn’t seem silly to you, then it’s OK to believe it.”
I think that’s fair, honest, honorable advice from any parent to any child, whether or not the parent is religious. What I cannot do is let my children be sheep… sheep that need a shepherd.
So many people force their religion on their children. “You WILL go to Sunday school.” “You WILL sit through the sermon.” “You WILL go to this private school.” The children hear the dogmatic message over and over, they are surrounded by people who believe it, they are discouraged from challenging it and they build their understanding of the world upon it. That’s it. They’re in. They’re committed. They had no chance of avoiding indoctrination. To challenge those beliefs after indoctrination would mean deconstructing their entire social structure, their entire understanding of the world. Nobody wants to do that. It would be too painful (read Plato’s Allegory of the Cave). And so the die is cast for most (not all) children raised in a religious environment to become religious adults. It must also be said that parents who do that to their children believe from the bottom of their hearts that they are doing the right thing. You can’t fault them for that, so I’m not ready to try and convict religious parents for heresy against secularism by forcing their kids to go to church. I’m simply stating it’s a choice I would never make.
The only thing I will force my children to do, as long as I draw breath, is think. It is my honest belief, after a lifetime of putting more thought into the subject than most people (religious or otherwise) ever will, that if you think about things, and I mean truly, honestly, rationally, reasonably think, and follow those thoughts to their ultimate rational conclusions, organized religion’s dogmatic particulars lose all credibility.
This past weekend, when my wife was snuggling our daughter down to sleep, my little first-grader rolled over and whispered apologetically, “Mommy, I don’t believe in the Easter Bunny. I know it’s just you and Daddy. The Easter Bunny just doesn’t make sense. It’s not scientific. I can’t believe in something that isn’t scientific.”
There’s one girl who will never let anyone tell her what to think.
Thank goodness she knows how.
—photo by Patrick Feller/Flickr