Raising the Atheist Child
I’ve been an atheist since I can remember. Some people think I’m kidding when I say this, but I can clearly remember my Lutheran kindergarten, when the teacher was going on about Jesus and I was giving all the other kids the side-eye: You’re not really buying this?
Dr. Skull, who’s Jewish, is a kind of believer, in that he’s afraid to eat pork during the Days of Awe lest God smite him with boils, or frogs. But when pressed he admits to agnosticism.
“You don’t really think Moses led all those Jews out of Egypt?” I demand. “I mean…come on. The archeological evidence–”
“It’s not the fact,” he says nervously, casting a glance at the sky. “It’s the idea. The idea of Moses matters.”
“And no pork.”
“Unless it’s bacon.”
So our kid, you won’t be surprised to find, is also an atheist. (“I’m not Jewish,” she insists: “I’m an atheist.” As if being an atheist Jew wasn’t as kosher as an egg cream.)
Sadly, when she was four, we moved to Arkansas, to a town riven through with Fundamentalist Christianity. At her elementary school, not just the students, but nearly all of the teachers attended the biggest Evangelical church in town.
“Lily wants to know what church you go to,” she asked me at six. “My teacher does too.”
“Tell them I belong to the Church of Books,” I said, which at the time I thought was funny.
The next day, she said, “My teacher wants to know what Church that is. She says, is your mama Mormon?”
Then there were their descriptions of hell – to which, since she didn’t believe in their God, she was doomed. My kid already has issues with anxiety. Being told at six that she would burn in a lake of fire for all eternity did not help.
I got the teachers to intervene to stop this bullying (which to their credit they did) and I did a lot of talking.
“Their parents tell them these things,” I said. “Their parents and their church scare them this way. We know hell isn’t real, but they don’t.”
At six, she wasn’t entirely convinced. “How do you know hell isn’t real?” she kept asking me. “What if it is?”
This was between the nightmares.
I explained how I knew. I talked about religious cultures and the origins of religious myths and religious ideas. I showed her sources: where Christians had found their concept of hell, how it was as unfounded in fact as witches or magic or Zeus. I also explained that Jews didn’t believe in hell, not the Christian concept of hell. Dr. Skull backed me up on this one. “Jewish hell is more like a waiting room,” he said. “You go there, you hang around for awhile — maybe a year — then it’s over. It’s very boring, but it’s not for long. So calm down.”
(She took this news back to the other kids at school. “Wow,” Lily said. “I wish I was Jewish.”)
I also taught her to argue from facts and with logic. No one who is raised to respect the evidence-based world is going to buy religious arguments for very long, in my experience.
I did all that, and then, when she was ten and eleven, we embarked upon a course of study: reading Greek mythology, reading Norse mythology, reading the Torah, and reading the Christian bible. (This latter annoying Dr. Skull. What was wrong with just reading the real Bible, he demanded.) She was smart and sensible. The comparative implications of these texts were clear to her.
I did have trouble after that, though, since we had not just read the Sunday school sections of the Christian Bible, but all of it.
“They say their Bible is God’s perfect word,” she said, “but it’s got all this in it? Sacrificing children and rape and Samson killing people just to win a bet? Not to mention the Ark. God kills everyone in the world because they’re all evil? Some of them had to be toddlers! Evil toddlers?”
“Right, well,” I said. “It doesn’t make sense. I agree. But no religion makes sense, really. You can’t expect reason from –”
This was not her point. “I need to use this,” she insisted. “When I’m arguing with Lily and the rest of them at school. These are great moral dirt clods, Mom! You have to let me throw them!”
This was because I had lain down the law: she was not allowed to reverse-proselytize. She could not, that is, attempt to make the other students at her school atheists.
“That would be too mean,” I explained. “They’re only kids.”
“I’m only a kid!”
“An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind,” I said.
“Wait,” I counseled. “When you’re in high school, you can reason with them all you like.”
This was our rule: when both she and they were over thirteen (the age of reason, in our Jewish world) she could fight back. Until then, she had to leave the other kids alone in their religion.
*** *** ***
There are benefits to raising an atheist child, as those of us who have done it know.
For one thing, no wasting long lovely hours of the weekend in religious services — I mean, that right there, am I right?
For another, you don’t have to threaten them into correct behavior with promises of eternal torture or tendentious explanations of some supernatural code. Instead, you can (at least attempt) to explain the true reasons for acting right.
I remember (as you might) learning that many Christians claim they are only held back from evil — including rape and murder and theft — by the threat of hell. We can at least hope that this is not true*, that these Christians are lying about why they behave well. But if so, the fact that they feel the need to lie is telling.
(If it’s not true, holy fuck is all I have to say.)
When raising an atheist child, you are free to teach your children to act right by cutting to the chase. You can simply teach your child that hurting other people is wrong because other people don’t like being hurt, no more than they like being hurt.
For instance, when my child was two and bit me, I cried out in pain. I said that she had hurt me. She cried then, because she had hurt me, and I comforted her. I reminded her that we didn’t hurt each other in this house. And – because we didn’t hurt each other in our house, because I had never hit her, and never would – she believed me. She never bit me, or anyone else, again.
It’s not always going to be that simple, obviously. And obviously sometimes it takes several repetitions for a lesson to sink in. When my kid was three, for instance, she had real issues with sharing. It took many, many iterations of “We share with our friends in this house,” and “I share my popcorn with you, don’t I? Then you should share yours with Daddy,” before she stopped wailing with dismay and grief over the very thought of having to share anything, anything at all, with anyone ever.
But the basic lesson we are teaching is not that you should obey because I am bigger and I say so; or (worse, in my opinion) you should obey because if you don’t obey someone more powerful than you will hurt you if you don’t. The lesson we are teaching is that you should do the right thing because if you don’t, other people get hurt. And when other people hurt, your world gets worse. When other people are hurt, you too are harmed.
This is the foundation of empathy, which is the foundation of community. (Thus the root of the word: communitas, from the Latin word meaning fellowship, the sharing of possessions or feelings, from which we get another English word, to commune with one another.)
Teaching that if you don’t obey, the person (or God) who claims to love you will hurt you (apparently horrifically, if he’s the Christian God) teaches the exact opposite of empathy, and thus seems (almost by design) to lead to the destruction of community.
*** *** ***
We didn’t punish our child while she was learning. She made mistakes; who doesn’t? And because she was a kid, she was making more mistakes than an adult would. But we worked with her – reasoned with her – to figure them out, and find solutions for them.
This frustrated and annoyed her teachers to no end, I have to say. They would send home notes about her transgressions at school, obviously expecting us to take action – and by action they meant punishment, and by punishment I expect they meant beatings – and we would reason with our child, and send her on back to school.
“Those delagars,” the school said once, within earshot of our child, I might add: “They don’t do anything to that child!”
Education, y’all. It’s nothing at all.
Eventually, we moved to homeschooling for those years between eleven and fifteen – yes, partly because of this conflict with her Evangelical teachers – so it’s only now that she is free to unleash the rapier of her reasoning mind on her classmates.
It’s been interesting to watch. She’s not the obnoxious kid I am sad to say I was, from time to time, relentlessly battering my Baptist schoolmates in New Orleans with the contradictions in their faith (“If we’re not supposed to divorce, why does Abraham send away Hagar? Huh? Huh?” “If drinking’s so wrong, why’s Jesus turn water into wine at that wedding, huh? HUH?”)
Rather, when her friends are moving away from the bonds of religion, she doesn’t nag or badger them. Instead, she is there for them. She listens to their doubts. They reason together.
And with those who remain in their religion, while she doesn’t mock them for their religion, she also doesn’t give them a pass when their religion causes them to say homophobic or transphobic or misogynistic things, either. She calls them on it, as does the rest of her circle of friends.
Also, she speaks up when her fellow students are wrong on ethical issues.
For instance in a recent class many of her fellow students, nearly all of them Christians – this school has not one but three separate Bible or Christian Prayer Groups which meet before school – were arguing that it was necessary to torture** our enemies. “If they’re going to do it to us,” one of the other students said, “we have to do it to them.”
My kid raised her hand: the only one to speak against this argument.
“Yes?” the teacher said.
“An eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind,” she said. Then she said, “Also, torture doesn’t even supply useful information. That’s been cited by actual intelligence agencies.”
“Well,” said the same student who had spoken before, “what if we have to torture people to, like, save a school bus full of children? What then?”
“Has that ever happened?” My kid demanded. “Ever? In the history of the world? You don’t do right by doing wrong. Torture is wrong, it’s immoral, it doesn’t work, it doesn’t provide useful information, and America shouldn’t do it.”
She got a round of applause from most of the class. She changed the course of the conversation.
She provided, for that class, an example of what real morality looks like.
This is what we do when we raise children who think, children who reason – whether they are atheists or whether they are theists (because (obviously) you don’t necessarily have to be an atheist to be a moral person). We create for our communities and for the world not just moral people, but examples of what moral people are: what they should be.
That’s no small thing.
*Though at least one study seems to support their claim, sadly enough.
**Side note: Why are Christians so into torture? Do you suppose it has anything to do with all that hellfire and Crucifixion? (#notallChristians***)
***Sorry. I tried really hard to keep the snark under control in this essay. I almost managed it, too! I was doing so well!
(Image Credits: All from Wikicommons: Aleksey Korin, Mother and Child Reading; Herri met de Bles, Harrowing of Hell; Hans Baldung, The Flood; Fresco of The Marriage at Cana, Visoki Decani Monastery)