“God is a mean-spirited, pugnacious bully bent on revenge against his children for failing to live up to his impossible standards.”
“Why should I wish to see God better than this day? I see something of God each hour of the twenty-four, and each moment then, In the faces of men and women I see God, and in my own face in the glass; I find letters from God dropped in the street, and every one is signed by God’s name.”
These condradictory quotes came from the same man, the great poet and humanist Walt Whitman. His work is dear to my heart and often reflects my inner spiritual conflct. Throughout his well-known “Leaves of Grass,” he grapples with spirituality, god, and religion. Perhaps this is why I identify so strongly with his work. (This is also why I’m torn by the abomination that is also my guilty pleasure: #HipsterWaltWhitman tweets.)
I was raised atheist. This is a rather uncommon experience for Americans in my generation, although it’s becoming more common as the number of childbearing atheists rises. Less common is my atheist upbringing by former Hindu immigrant parents. I’m writing this because of late, I’ve engaged in frequent conversations on the subject. Recently I was feeling spiritually hollow and tweeted the following:
The direct messages I received in response were astounding, primarily due to their sheer marvel at me as a rare 30-something raised-atheist specimen. I say astounding because from my perspective, being raised atheist seems the least anomalous of all the atypical aspects of my upbringing. Nevertheless, I always openly answer questions, whether the person inquiring is religious, atheist, or anything in between.
Here is an abridged retelling of my atheist upbringing:
My parents moved to the U.S. from India a few years before I was born. My brilliant molecular biologist father was raised Hindu in India, and went on to identify as atheist as a young man. As he became increasingly knowledgeable in science, he couldn’t reconcile belief in gods. My mom was also raised Hindu and seemed relatively secular although she wasn’t as particular or outspoken about her beliefs.
I remember not thinking much about God, heaven, hell, or an afterlife as a very young child. But as all parents know, children don’t live in a belief/non-belief bubble gingerly blown by their parents. As I started making friends and becoming an avid reader, my developing mind pondered the questions all children contemplate. I recall asking my dad about heaven, God, and afterlife at a young age. He explained that life is simply a biochemical and neurological phenomenon, and that death ends that process. I asked what happens after the process ends. He responded that death is like “sleep without dreams.” The body decays and is consumed by worms and microorganisms, and that is the circle of life. Dear sweet baby universe, I was terrified. I’ve spent the rest of my life since then ruminating on this. As a side note, I clearly remember being afraid of the dark shortly thereafter. My mother gave me a small tapestry depicting Hindu gods. She said something to the effect of, “Although these gods aren’t real, why don’t you keep this under your pillow? It may give you some comfort.” I knew it was very loving of her, but I was wary. Still, I slept with the cloth under my pillow for months, clinging to a shred of hope that just maybe, these gods could protect me.
I must stress that in retrospect, I know my father had the best of intentions. I still remember the twinkle in his eye as he recounted his beliefs. It’s precisely the same twinkle that would illuminate him when sharing frequent conversations about wonderful topics throughout my childhood and adolescence. We’d ramble together for hours about the infinite universe, the beauty and symmetry of nature, and great scientific discoveries. It’s obvious that when he explained death to me, he simply believed he was sharing his awe about a scientific truth.
However, the man who explained death to me was a far younger version of his current much wiser self. I believe that if he knew what he knows now, he would have handled that conversation very differently. Also, the same man who seemed to think that these notions were superior to those of his religious peers has softened his stance. He no longer preaches to believers the errors of their ways like he once did.
What have I learned from being raised atheist?
I’ve concluded that I cannot be certain that post-death cognizance doesn’t exist. I don’t disbelieve in a higher power in the universe. While I still identify as atheist or agnostic-atheist depending on my mood, I plan to impart my beliefs to my children very differently than my father did. I hope to give my kids the capacity to be open-minded and decide for themselves. When they ask, we’ll explain some of the commonly-held beliefs, including our own. We’ll make it clear that they are free to ask questions or discuss the subject as they grow. My husband, who was raised in a non-religious household and considers himself “atheist, but agnostic/non-religious by atheist standards,” agrees.
As for ethics, we’d approach this similarly to how our parents did with us. I was mainly taught that notions of right and wrong are likely instinctual/innate, and that most humans should find it viscerally reprehensible to harm others. My father often recounted stories of colleagues or friends inquiring where he got his sense of morality without religion. I loyally shared in his bafflement.
As an older sibling and a parent of two, I appreciate that children from the same family can respond vastly differently under similar circumstances. While I would never identify with a particular religion, I’m still unable to shake the effects of my father’s explanation. The childlike fear that gripped me then still hits me at unexpected times. At the same time, I imagine that my father gave my sister a similar narrative, she considered it for a moment, and skipped off to watch an episode of Wishbone. (This is only my perception. I’m only now realizing that I’ve never discussed this with her.) For that reason, we’ll strive to be sensitive our children’s personality differences and discuss these topics accordingly. A good friend of mine articulated so well the one thing I’ll never do, which is attempt to “interpret the mystery” in any definitive manner. They will have to do this for themselves.
Stay tuned for Part II of Conflicts With Atheism, in which I’ll discuss my view of the atheist superiority complex, and why we as atheists are not immune to ignorance.