Reader Request Week 2011 #1: Children and Faith

Alphager asks:

As far as I understand from your lent-related post, you are an atheist/agnostic and encourage your daughter to take an interest in religions in general and the christian faiths in particular.
Can you explain how that came to be and by which principles (e.g. will you go to church with her? Are you open about your beliefs?) you teach her about religion?

I ask because me and my girlfriend are on the verge of marriage and have been talking a lot about religion and atheism; I’m an atheist and she is the daughter of a protestant pastor. She fears that the question of religious education (or lack thereof) of our (as of yet potential) children could be a major source of conflict.

Well, the reason I encourage her to learn about religion, and Christian faiths in particular, is because the large majority of people on this planet follow a religion of some sort, and here in the United States, the large majority of those who are religious are Christians of one sort or another. I’m an agnostic of the non-wishy-washy sort (i.e., I don’t believe in a god nor believe one is required to explain the universe, but I acknowledge I can’t prove one doesn’t or never did exist) and always have been for as long as I can remember thinking about these things. I don’t see being an agnostic meaning one has to be willfully ignorant about religion, nor do I see my role as an agnostic parent being one where I shield my daughter from the reality that she lives in a religious society.

Where my daughter is on her own journey of discovery regarding faith is not for me to discuss publicly, but I can say that I believe more information is almost always better. So when she wants to know about a particular religion or explore some aspect of faith, I encourage her to do so; when she comes to me with questions about religion, I either answer her questions (being that I know a fair amount about most major religions) or help her find answers. Athena is well aware that I am an agnostic, and what that means, and we’ve explored that aspect of faith (or lack thereof) as well. I won’t tell you what questions she asks about religion, faith, agnosticism and all of that, but I will tell you that she asks good questions, and for my part I answer them as truthfully and as fairly as I can.

There are a number of people who have come to agnosticism or atheism because of conflicts with or disillusionment about religion, and in particular a religion they were born into and grew up in, and others who are agnostic or atheist who feel that religion and the religious impulse must be challenged wherever they find it. For these reasons among others I think people assume those people who aren’t religious are naturally antagonistic, to a greater or lesser degree, to those who are. But speaking personally, I don’t feel that sort of antagonism; I don’t look at those who believe as defective or damaged or somehow lacking. Faith can be a comfort and a place of strength and an impetus for justice in this world, and I’m not sure why in those cases I, as a person without faith, would need to piss all over that.

There are those, of course, who believe their faith (and here in the US, their Christian faith primarily) excuses being bigoted, or cruel, or ignorant, or petty or pitiless, or who use their faith (or the faith of others) to do terrible things and/or to impose their worldly will on others. In my experience, this is less about the teachings of Christ than it is about people being bigoted, cruel, ignorant assholes and then saying Jesus told them to be that way. Well, no, he didn’t. These folks are simply looking for an external excuse for their own bad behavior. It’s the spiritual equivalent of the dude who goes out on Saturday night, acts like a jackass, gets into a fight or two and wakes up the next morning in a ditch without his pants and then blames it on the Pabst Blue Ribbon. It ain’t the beer that’s the problem, it’s the man behind the can. Likewise, Jesus and his unambiguous message of love and charity toward even the least of us is not responsible for the lout who wraps himself in a cross and preaches a message neatly opposite to Jesus’ own. I don’t have any problems opposing these people, and letting them know just what bad Christians I think they are. I’ve don’t have any problems pointing out these people to my child, either.

But again, that’s not about me as an agnostic opposing those who have faith. It’s me as a person who knows the message of Christ pointing out a hypocrite, and me as a person with my own moral, social and political standards countering one whose standards differ. As it happens, I know a reasonable number of people of faith who feel the same way I do, and have many of the same moral, social and political standards as I have. Do I fear them? Discount them? Think them defective? No; I say “I’m glad to know you.” We believe many of the same things; that some of their belief comes from the teachings of Jesus, or from Allah by way of Muhammad, or from Buddha, to name just three examples, does not trouble me. Whatever steps we took to get there, we’re walking the same path.

As an agnostic, I’m not afraid of my child learning about faith and how it’s practiced. I think it’s necessary, and I think it’s valuable. I’m also not afraid that my child might adopt a faith as her own; she may indeed. If I have done my job as a parent, she will have done so from a position of knowledge, and of understanding everything that comes with adhering to a practice of faith — and with the ability to ignore or act against those who would try to use that faith as a lever to get her to do things counter to its teachings.

Likewise, I don’t think any agnostic or atheist has much to fear in teaching their children about religion, if they answer their kids’ questions truthfully, openly and in the spirit of giving their kids as much information as they can so their children can make their own decisions — which they will anyway, unless you’ve raised a drone, which is something I think most of us would rather not do. Raising your children to know they can ask things, they will get answers and that they can question any belief, religious or otherwise, raises the chance that whatever path they choose regarding faith — including the path that espouses no faith at all — they are on the correct path for them. As a parent, I think that’s what you want.

It’s not too late to ask questions for Reader Request Week — post your questions at this link.

122 Comments on “Reader Request Week 2011 #1: Children and Faith”

  1. Great parenting, John. And it’s good to be your neighbor – in the broadest sense, of course – as I am across the country from you. But tolerance, peaceful coexistance and appreciation for the better parts of each other is what makes for a good society. I have always considered the the “freedon of religion” clause would also incorporate “freedom from religion”. Spirituality and religion are too oftern too very different.

    But back to my point – terrific work!!

  2. Very well said. I’ve always believed religion should be the choice of the individual, not their parents. Alot of christian parents seem to be horrified by the idea that their child may not follow their faith.

  3. It’s a reasonable approach, this. Dan Dennett has emphasized that children ought to learn about religion, all religions (their iconography, mythology, sociology, etc).

    I suspect, however, that Alphager’s fiancée wants not merely religious education, but religious indoctrination: socialization, not sociology, if you like. I can completely see how this could cause conflict. I, for one, could not allow my children to undergo such indoctrination.

  4. Many of the new members of my Unitarian Universalist (UU) church join explicitly for this purpose. They are looking for an education for their children. They want the children to learn about the full range of religions (both the theist and atheist religions) without specific indoctrination. It’s an important part of US culture and it’s important to understand religion regardless of your personal beliefs.

  5. Nicely explained.

    Having a similar view on religion, I really really appreciate the way you’ve expressed your viewpoint. We are trying tp provide our kids the same broad exposure so if they choose a religious path, it’s done because that path fulfills something within them and it is what they seek, not what they have been taught.

    If more religious individuals were so enlightened there might be more tolerance and fewer “bigoted, cruel, ignorant assholes” who see opinions unlike their own as threatening/uninformed/foolish.

    Nothing worse than a rabid believer, or non-believer.

  6. I’m a Unitarian Universalist too, and if we lack dogma we certainly have good jokes. Mostly about ourselves.

  7. John, this is really interesting. Great topic!
    My parents raised me quite the same way. They are both protestants, as am I. My mother even teaches religion at school, whereas my father teaches ethics (which is quite like religion education in school, but with a much wider focus on other religions as well). They taught me to think religion through and encouraged me to read up on other religions apart from our own.
    So this information policy does not need to be part of any conflict. Religion is quite important, if only to gain a better understanding. For myself, I am Christian, but I do not regularly go to church, and I think that is more of a possibility for conflict in Alphagers situation.

  8. For the first few years of my life, I was raised Methodist. Shortly after my brother was born, we stopped attending church regularly; we only went on major xtian holidays. As I grew up I realized my parents, particularly the Maternal Unit, did not practice what they preached. On the one hand, I was told I was worthless, on the other hand, she claimed that “handicapped children are god’s special children”. I began wondering how a “loving god” could have seen fit to make me handicapped, and to make my parents so ashamed of me. By the time I was 12, I had started to lean pretty heavily towards atheism, and b the time I was in college I was ready to say so publicly.

    I’m glad you’re raising your daughter to have a broad exposure to many faiths, and to be comfortable asking you questions about faith. I know what my views are, but I understand it’s not my place to force my views on others. If other people choose to believe in a “higher power”, that’s up to them, and I won’t tell them yea or nay. I only wish more xtians could be more tolerant of, and less horrified by, those of us who choose not to believe.

  9. (Yes, as the typo indicates I am somewhat dyslexic. No, as a non-wishy-washy agnostic I do NOT lie awake at night wondering if there really is a dog.)

  10. It would be hypocritical for most atheists to shield their children from religion. If one arrives at a conclusion through free thinking rather than indoctrination, he should encourage his child to a free thinker as well.

    Just a semantic point, Michael, I believe you are an atheist, not an agnostic. Meaning is constructed uniquely by each person, especially in regard to dicussions of worldview or “belief.” Nevertheless, you say you don’t believe in god but can’t be 100% certain such a being doesn’t exist. Neither can I, but I think the possibility is so infinitesimally small that I reject religion. I live my life as if god does not exist, so I am an atheist, even while admitting the chance that I am wrong.

  11. Michael @3: If one person in the marriage sees any positive presentation of the other’s views on religion as “indoctrination”, then yeah, I think that’s kind of a deal-breaker – no matter what those views might be. Alphager is entirely correct; you can agree to disagree between spouses, but it’s difficult if not impossible to do that with children, unless one of you really doesn’t care all that much.

    John, I think that’s an excellent approach, but I admit that I find it a little jarring to hear you refer to Jesus as “Christ”. (Not offensive, mind you, just surprising. I assume it’s colloquial usage but it’s like hearing a non-Muslim refer to Mohammad as “the Prophet”: a non-believer using a title suggesting the faithful’s view of that person is correct.)

  12. Old Ancestor:

    Let’s actually not start telling people what they are in terms of being atheist or agnostic. We can assume that people here have reached their own conclusions about what label they feel most comfortable with and fits their own point of view, which means that correcting them about it is bound to be a little irritating.


    “a non-believer using a title suggesting the faithful’s view of that person is correct”

    Well, or using it to make a rhetorical point, which is in this case what I’m doing. I’m aware of course of “Christ” being a title (as opposed to a last name), and I did choose when I said “Christ” and when I said “Jesus” in the entry for specific purposes. It’s possible that as a rhetorical exercise it wasn’t clear to anyone but me, however.

  13. I was raised in a not-overly-religious home, though one that did rather strickly believe in the moral tenants of Christianity and taken to church every Sunday because it was the “right thing to do”. When I got to college, I ended up joining what would probably be best labled a “sorta cult”, not quite as bad as some, but a lot more restrictive than my upbringing and a LOT more controlling on the personal level. However, I did meet my future wife there and made a few friends that I keep up with, after my wife and I left quite a few years ago, disgusted with what it had become.

    My youngest daughter is drawn towards liberal Judaism (well, attracted to the ideas, not a follower), while my eldest daughter simply couldn’t care less. My wife and I? Some of the nicest, kindest folks we’ve ever met were Christians and some of the meanest, most controlling SOB’s were supposedly Christians as well. I’ve met agnostics and atheists of both ilks as well.

    So, I’m pretty much in the camp of our host; it’s the person, not the window dressing, that counts in the end. Just make sure the kids get to see all sides before they make up their minds on their own.

  14. I think that much of the anxiety I’ve seen in agnostic parents is the fear that their children may adopt a faith (or practice thereof) that encourages them to break with non-believers (such as said parents) or worry that their relationship will be made uncomfortable by their children trying to convert them.

    I’ve been on the flip side of that: my parents got religion somewhat late in life, at a point where I was not also swept along (as my younger brothers were). It’s resulted in a fairly strained relationship, and I understand why parents would want to avoid that, and would see shielding their children from exposure to religion as a way to avoid it. I think they’re wrong, though, that such shielding only makes the subject appear interesting, and makes it an obvious route for teenage rebellion — my parents’ attempt to shield me from exposure to atheism was extremely counterproductive, for example.

  15. Being a Christian I raised my kids the same way. Why wouldn’t you allow your children to discover something like this. I provided my kids information on all faiths, sent then to public schools and college for where they were exposed to agnostic and similar viewpoints.
    I have found that your kids naturally have similar views as the parents no matter how neutral you try to be. It is when they move off, go through college and are on their own that they have true will to decide things are their own.
    As for my grown children who have moved on, got a career (one a civil engineer and the other a molecular biologist) they went through several phases of belief and non belief (one went way out there, another story) and have decided for themselves to be Christians.

  16. John,
    I was raised a heathen, became a “born again spirit filled” Christian, and I agree with your ideas about faith. I wish more Christians were open to honest questions, the exchange of ideas and the acceptance of others that Jesus taught.

  17. Well said, Scalzi and many good comments. But it occurred to me as I read your post, aren’t you ordained in some fashion? I seem to recall that you have performed marriages for several friends. I suppose it’s some sort of loosey-goosey, back-of-the-cereal-box California thing (and as a native Californian, I don’t really mean that in a derogatory way), but if your religious views haven’t changed over the years, what prompted you to take that step?

  18. Agreed with the whole post—to a point. Personally, I think my parents would have been wiser not to encourage my brother to learn about the teachings of Cthulhu and the Great Old Ones. Certainly the dog (RIP, Sparky!) would have thanked them.

  19. DemetriosX:

    I’m ordained because I had a friend ordained to officiate my wedding, and I did it with him so he wouldn’t feel awkward about it. It’s come in handy because I’ve now married about a dozen couples.

  20. Excellent post. My parents had a very similar way of raising my sister and I. They both came from different religious backgrounds and decided early on to not force either upon their offspring. I grew up with views much similar to John’s, being an open-minded agnostic. I’ve looked at different religions, and while I’ve been influenced by what I’ve studied I’ve never found one that I wish to practice. The closest I’ve come is some of flavors of Buddhism, and I have practiced meditation and found it rewarding. My sister joined a church years ago and it caused friction between us until I grew up enough to realize she could do what she wanted without it affecting me. Our parents supported both of us throughout this, and let us make our own decisions on what religion we wanted to practice.

  21. I was raised a Christian by my folks, but was always encouraged to learn more – I still remember the day my folks brought home our first new encyclopedia set. I was 7, and it was *awesome*. I am agnostic as an adult(yes, the non-wishy-washy kind) and I am comfortable with the fact that there is uncertainty in the universe.

    I think that many people find comfort in religion mostly because they are uncomfortable with uncertainty. Of course, one of the biggest uncertainties is what happens to our sense of self after our body passes on, and most religions purport to answer that. This fear/dislike of uncertainty is pretty normal, I think, and I’m happy that folks find comfort wherever they can, whether it be religon, tradition, superstition, or science.

    So, terrific post – like after reading so many of them, I end up nodding my head and saying “me too” at the end. Like, I suspect, most of your readers, I feel like I share many of your sensibilities, which is probably one of the reasons that I enjoy your writing so much.

    I’d like to add that, like my folks did, and like you do, I encourage my kids to read, explore and investigate. I also encourage them to think for themselves and to challenge authority if they think something is wrong (or simply want more understanding). This can make for some interesting conversations with them when my wife and I *are* the authority, but I think that fact that my kids can ask for the rationales behind any rules we lay down makes us better parents in the long run. It might be kind of silly, but I consider it a point of pride that I’ve never had to say, “Because I said so!” (at least, not yet!).

    P.S. Happy Pi Day, people!

  22. Just read your “What my Jesus would do” post. I think I love you. (And I say that as someone who’s been an agnostic for most of her life and who now considers herself an atheist.)

  23. Great post John, it’s nice to find that there are others out there like my husband and me. I was raised Catholic, my hubby with no religion. We spent a couple of years in a non-denominational church and felt good about having a family-focused place to spend time with our kids. That is until we came to understand that non-denominational in our case was code for Southern Baptist. Our liberal feet couldn’t run away fast enough when we started hearing about “bad news marriages” and the evils of Harry Potter. All in all we were glad for the experience but are equally happy that we left when we did. It makes for great dinner conversation and fun posts on blogs.

    Now the kids are 13 and 11 and it’s just fun to have open discussions about religions and the like. Our daughter asked us about Scientology over breakfast just yesterday. Good times, good times…

  24. Wandering slightly off topic (hopefully not so far as to warrant more than a gentle tap of that mallet), one of the problems kids often face when learning about faith and beliefs is how to cope with the so-called conflict between religion(s) and science. That point was certainly hammered home in Carl Sagan’s “Contact”, both the book and the movie made from it.

    My upbringing was a mixture of experiences, mainly because I was adopted at age 2 (by my single mom’s married sister, just to confuse things), and then my adopted parents divorced and she remarried. I don’t normally attend church except for weddings and funerals, but if you had to put a label on my beliefs I’m probably closer to Unitarian than anything else, plus a strong Jewish influence from growing up in New York.

    Back to “science versus religion” … I don’t personally see a conflict, since to me science is merely a cataloging of what we’ve observed to be reasonably consistent and predictable in the universe, and the patterns they appear to fall into. When the “rules” of science seem to change drastically, it’s almost always agreed that our original observations and/or assumptions were faulty.

    Oh, and about Sagan’s book … the movie totally left out probably the most critical part of the book relating to the so-called conflict, the discovery (with the help of hints) that the value of pi, expressed in a certain numerical base and displayed with a certain choice of height/width ratio, actually included a visible perfect circle. To several characters, this was the long-sought tangible proof of the existence of a supreme being/force/purpose/whatever.

  25. I agree with John we shouldn’t be afraid of telling our children about religion but if my daughter chose to be religious I’d be worried that she’d be concerned for the eternal damnation of her dear old dad’s soul. Having said that though my daughter is only 11 weeks old and the only deity cares about now is her mother at feeding time. if she was able to articulate a question now I would convert.

    One thing I’ve always wondered about though is the religion shoppers. Trying different religions on for size to see if one fits. How does that work? I thought most religions claimed to have a monopoly on the truth? By definition all the other religions are wrong.

  26. Kudos to Alphager and his fiancee for working this out before they get married and have a kid. Interfaith marriage IS a challenge and it’s something couples should talk about before they take the plunge. The fact that they are concerned enough to ask others how they’ve handled it is a good portent for their relationship.

  27. I’ve noticed something unusual about the comments posted in this forum, and this topic seems like good example: the commentators are mostly as calm, thoughtful, well reasoned and interesting to read as the host’s original message. John, do you filter these to exclude the flamers, those who comment without (apparently) having read your post, those who are more interested in their own rhetoric and those who want to do no more than start a fight? Or are the commentators here self-selected, and do they respond to your own style?

    In any case, I truly enjoy reading what you all have to say!

  28. I count Athena blessed, John. You clearly recognize what many people raised (and indoctrinated) into a religious faith do not. One’s religious faith is a choice made upon the basis of a body of information (evidence would be too strong a noun). You clearly seek to provide Athena with the richest body of information possible so that when she makes her choice regarding faith (or non-faith), then her choice will be the right one for her for a fulfilling life’s journey. Would that all parents would take such an approach.

    I raised my two sons in our Christian faith, but I also sought to be sure I did what you do now with Athena–answer all their questions honestly. As adults they have made their choices now for themselves. I decided decades ago to support their choices come what may so long as (faith or non-faith) they embraced a worldview of compassion for and service to humanity. They did.

  29. Shane@28: “Trying different religions on for size to see if one fits. How does that work?”

    Some people, rather than explore their own beliefs (or thinking they don’t have any) will try on a bunch of other people’s beliefs to see if they feel right. It’s kind of like shopping for a gym for one’s soul. Some people go for the exercise, others go for the spandex.

  30. Dave Tolen:

    Commenters here generally follow the comment policy I’ve posted. I do bring down the Mallet on comments I feel are abusive or wandering off topic, but usually a simple nudge will do. I am in fact gratified to have such excellent commenters.

  31. I’ve been on much the same journey with The Child. I am an atheist (as opposed to an agnostic), what I call ‘Low Church atheism’. Nonconfrontational, as you say. I feel no need to deconvert anyone.

    In raising our daughter, her mother and I had to reconcile our differing views on the spiritual life with giving The Child the freedom to explore her own spiritual options. Your comment section is not the place for me to discuss this in any detail, but I applaud your open-minded efforts with Athena, which are quite similar to my own.

  32. shane: not all religions so claim. Some of them, and certain interpretations of the others, say that theirs is but one way to the truth. Even some Christian denominations are open-minded enough to not exclude other paths.

    I’ve been a few different things in my time, but have settled into secular humanism[1] and Discordianism. Like our host, I’m satisfied that deity as we understand it doesn’t exist, but I can’t prove it either way.

    I’ll do my best to do basically what John’s doing with Athena when my toddler’s grown enough. We’ve been getting some pressure from various elder relations to make sure we bring her to church, get her baptized (I’m ex-Lutheran), &c, but I never enjoyed church and don’t intend to go back except for purposes of exposing my daughter later, and I have a vague fear of interference from well-meaning said relations.

    [1] Isaac Asimov said that at one point he considered himself a Jewish atheist, because he knew his perceptions were unavoidably colored by his Jewish upbringing. Later called himself a humanist, because (paraphrasing) that described what he believed, rather than what he did not.

  33. As a Christian who spent most of his life as an agnostic, I applaud you John on your approach to religion and the religious. I’ve seen bigots that hide behind religion and atheism. Nether one is more acceptable than the other. I think it is up to like minded good people from both camps to call out bigots from both camps. I would not put up with intolerant people at the church I choose to attend and I would hope most Christians do the same. Nor do I think my beliefs should be forced down the throats of others. My Pastor tells us that we should tell non-believers to ask Jesus to reveal Himself them – because He likes to do that. That is as pushy as is gets.

  34. What is the honest answer to a child who asks their parent is there a God?
    As an atheist my answer would be “I don’t think so”. A Christian would say “I believe so”.
    Is the only truly honest answer “I don’t know”?

    “My Pastor tells us that we should tell non-believers to ask Jesus to reveal Himself them – because He likes to do that.”
    An atheist would find that hilarious. It is almost like a religious version of the time travel grandfather paradox.

  35. … but I will tell you that she asks good questions, and for my part I answer them as truthfully and as fairly as I can.

    This brought a smile to my face, as if I was proud of both of you. I suppose I am, or should be.

    Raised Lutheran (the old TALC & Swedish); now mostly alternate between agnostic and Philosophical Taoism. Like most things, religion and faith are neither good nor bad in themselves, it’s how people misuse them.

  36. I consider myself an ecumenical atheist. What I mean by that is I’m fine with whatever people believe and I don’t see any point in my trying to convince them otherwise. I love what you’re doing with Athena. Just awesome.

  37. Very nice post.

    Much of what you say is also applicable to followers of a faith who choose to have their children educated deeply in that faith.

    We should not be afraid to have our children learn about other faiths and how they’re practiced, with the facts about other faiths presented as fairly as possible — if possible, using the same words the other faith’s practitioners would use to describe themselves. Those other faiths raise questions about our own faith, and that’s really a wonderful way to explore the differences and in so doing come to know more deeply our own.

  38. My shorthand label for my roughly similar perspective: Pluralist Atheist.

    I recognize that many people have strong cultural ties to their faith (such that to break those ties would be denying cultural heritage); many people take needed comfort from it, and many people choose to follow the teachings of their faith’s wise leaders in such a way as to do good works and live a life that brings benefit to all.

    Far be it from me to tell these folks that they can’t follow their hearts.

    Where the problem comes in–and where I will be vocally stubborn–is when people use their faith to deny empiricism and/or as an excuse to treat other people poorly. In other words, pray, attend services, do rituals, etc., all you want so long as you’re not denouncing science education, working against people trying to stem global warming and trying to use government or violent power to make people of other faiths (or none) follow your religion’s rules.

    Don’t yet have little’uns of my own, but I hope to do the same: Teach them about world religions as a matter of general cultural education. I feel I would be shortchanging my kids to eliminate information about something that’s such a huge part of the world, both historically and currently, especially when it has such power to drive important political events.

  39. I grew up in a religious family & went to weekly bible study for many years in addition to Sunday School and confirmation classes. I came to my atheism through education and exposure. My fear for my children was that they might meet some of the very good salesmen that religion produces. Those people know how to sell & have been working on the pitch for a thousand years. But like all salespeople with a bad product they know how to hide the flaws and accentuate the positives. I gave them critical thinking skills but still, a good con man knows how to pick the young fruit.

  40. Shane @37: Is the only truly honest answer “I don’t know”?

    On a purely technical level, it’s basically impossible for there to be a corporeal, conscious deity of any sort on this plane of existence. However, there are metaphysical things that science does not yet know, or that it can never know, and it is those gaps in which a deity of sorts may lie should someone wish to believe so. In other words, if someone wants to believe that a deity brought forth matter itself or exists as the Higgs-Boson, fair enough. But it’s scientifically dishonest to, for instance, insist that the hand of a humanlike God specifically created the Earth and everything in it.

    That said, some people sincerely believe in astrology, unicorns and that buying lottery tickets is a sound investment strategy. Much as I’d personally like to educate folks otherwise, as long as they’re not using those beliefs to harm others, it’s kinda not my place to tell them they believe in fairy dust.

  41. Frank @42: As with any other huckster, forewarned is forearmed. If your kids know that there are snake oil salesmen about and how to recognize them, they’re not going to be taken in.

    It’s kinda like knowing that the Great and Powerful Oz is just a man behind the curtain. Once you have that knowledge, it’s a lot harder to be unduly impressed by the great, firey head.

  42. I think it is also important to note that there is a difference between faith, religion and spirituality and one can incorporate one, two, three or none into his/her daily life in whatever combination is most fitting for that individual.

  43. My wife and I were both raised Catholic but neither of us felt compelled to be Catholics in our marriage.

    I myself am not a Christian, but I am a Deist. I have never pointed this out to my children nor have I explored with them what I think this means.

    We did, however, have our children baptized in a Catholic church for the parents.

    Other than that, my kids never saw the inside of any church unless they wanted to go, which happened a few times, so I’d take them. Their grandparents would take them.

    As my four children grew (my youngest being 25 and my oldest 35) they have variously flirted with both Christian and non-Christian religions. My number 2 daughter is partial to Hinduism while being in a long-term relationship with a Muslim.

    My son is definitively an atheist. At least today.

    My attitude was much like Scalzi’s and I have a high tolerance for religious points of view and I think things worked out pretty good.

    My kids have never asked me about Scientology.

    Good thing…

  44. My son is about a year and a half and I’ve been wondering about this myself. My wife is a Daoist from China and I’m kind of a Pagan Agnostic (I don’t really think that there’s any supernatural layer to the universe, but I like a lot of the Earth-based practices of modern Paganism).

    My fear is that my son would for some reason pick one of the more aggressive prosletysing faiths, which just get under my skin on so many levels. I know families that have been split by conversions to fundamentalist Christianity, Mormonism, and Jehovah’s Witness faiths.

  45. These are the definitions as I thought they worked:
    religious: believes in the existence of God.
    atheist: believes in the nonexistence of God.
    agnostic: avoids believing either way about the existence or non existence of God.
    I don’t think I’ve heard the term “wishy washy agnostic” before.

  46. Tal @43 “In other words, if someone wants to believe that a deity brought forth matter itself …fair enough. ”

    That’s a pretty fair summary of orthodox Catholic belief, and probably most other Christians’ belief as well. Not just matter, but time and space as well. (I’ve studied too much physics for my own good, and so I’m not sure how many ordinary people pick up on the time- and space-creation aspect of it, but the idea is that the entire physical universe along with all its properties were creations of the deity. Hence every aspect of the divine is in those “gaps” that you write about.)

  47. Shane @37: What religion are the parents? The answer could range from “No, but there is a Goddess” to “It doesn’t matter” to “Definitely”, depending.

  48. I read this post with great interest and, as usual, agree with most of John’s points, and with a lot of the good additional points made in the comments. A point I would like to add is the importance of a familiarity with the ideas and tenets of major world religions in understanding classic and modern literature and art. There are so many allusions to Bible stories and ideas in the classics that reading some works without at least a background in the Bible seems akin to reading with your eyes partly closed (not to mention all the sculpture, classic paintings, etc, that have their background in Judeo-Christianity, Greek/Roman mythology, and other major religions). I am an agnostic raised by a “mixed marriage” of Protestant preacher’s daughter and lapsed Catholic, and I am grateful for the Bible study that I took as a teenager when I was exploring my own spirituality, not only because I gained some understanding of where my more traditionally Christian friends were coming from, but because it gave me a deeper appreciation of so many great works of art and literature (not even to mention modern fiction, television, movies…).

    I didn’t realize the extent of it until I was talking to a very educated and intelligent friend of mine who grew up in the United States and has never read the Bible. I would point to obvious allusions to Christ in something we were discussing, and he would literally have no idea what any of it meant. It was fascinating to see how that lack of background can change someone’s perspective and opinion. We are both sort of nerds about history, education, and how people think, so we had numerous conversations about it, exploring the gaps in his knowledge base.

  49. Does ‘Jedi’ count as a religion? Because my son is totally indoctrinated into that. :) My daughter has gone to church a few times with her grandmother, but doesn’t really see church as much else but a place where they do crafts, afaik. She’s been to church with some friends, as well (after sleepovers and the like). I’m fine with this. I was raised Catholic and my wife was raised Protestant, but I’m more like our host and she’s a pagan, essentially.

    But I have friends who are hardcore christians, pagans and a couple of buddhists. WIthout exception, they are all fine, kind people. Their religion is part of their identities, but like enjoying pickles or beets, I don’t have to share it to appreciate their company.

  50. Thank you for this balanced and thoughtful statement. I don’t hesitate to identify as a Christian, baptised and born again; a position I came to as an adult, by conscious decision, and not blindly nor by pressure of conformity or indoctrination. Nevertheless, the neighbourhoods in which I make my online home (among thinkers, writers, makers and well-educated commentators) tend strongly towards atheists and agnostics. Sadly, I’m well acquainted with both self-described critical thinkers who seem to view me as damaged or in need of fixing for my beliefs, and with the noisy, hypocritical rage (emanating particularly from certain corners of the US political spectrum) which seems to be many atheists’ understanding of what religion looks like.

    As others have said, there are bigots on both sides of the divide; hiding reflexive dismissal and antipathy behind a comforting label is no better or more acceptable under one label than any other. It’s refreshing to see my ‘class’ portrayed simply as someone with whom the author disagrees, neither denigrated, nor seen as mentally deficient, nor treated with impersonal hostility. Again, thank you.

  51. Greg @48:
    Those definitions are significantly over-simplified. Especially since these are identity markers for a lot of people. It’s often best to let people give their own labels, and use those.

  52. Thank you for such a well-thought-out post, John. Athena’s very lucky to have you as a parent!

    For myself, I’m currently undecided. I was raised Christian (my parents are non-denominational but strong believers) but I was also raised to respect and understand other religions. My mother was a Religious Education teacher (it’s a compulsory subject for children here in the UK, which I think is fantastic).

    I don’t have any problem with being raised in the Christian faith. I think going to church was good for me as a child – it helped me think through ethics etc and I made some good friends there. At the time I was devout too, but I began to question things as I got older and made friends with various atheists, agnostics and followers of other religions. At 24, I’m undecided, and right now I’m okay with that. Maybe one day I’ll start thinking things through more. I simply don’t want to be pressured in any direction and thankfully my parents aren’t doing so.

    It’s natural for people to want their children to have the same beliefs as they do, especially people who are very religious or very atheist. Where I have a problem is when people then refuse to respect people with different beliefs and try to pass this down to their children, refuse to let their children learn about different faiths. Parents should trust their children, give them all the facts and then let them choose for themselves.

  53. Hm.

    My brother and I were raised by non-observant Jewish parents; we had a Christmas tree until (at the age of four or so) I observed that as Jews, we probably shouldn’t, and from then on we didn’t. When we moved to a small city when I was 10 and my brother six, my parents joined a Conservative (read “liberal”) synagogue, mainly for social reasons; they only attended on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. I went to Hebrew and Sunday schools through the age of 14, my brother through high school. I was Bar Mitzvah, but I told the Rabbi beforehand that I no longer believed in God (a slight fib; I hadn’t for a long time), and he wasn’t disturbed at all by that.

    Basically, from then on, I considered myself first an agnostic, then an atheist, the first because as a matter of pure formality I couldn’t prove God’s nonexistence, the second because I I couldn’t imagine anything that would convince me that God did exist. My brother gradually became more observant with time; after his first child was born, he and his wife began keeping a Kosher home, attending synagogue more and more regularly (although when he eats out without his pafily, he’s delighted to have pork or shrimp). His son is now a “Conservadox” rabbi (liberal in belief, orthodox in observance).

    I have never asked either my brother or his son whether they actually believe in God (and, as Jews, it really wouldn’t be obligatory).

    My wife was brought up in a family of Russian Catholics (Uniate, I suppose) and Swedish Lutherans, most of whom didn’t take religion very seriously, though one of her cousins became a Methodist minister of a pretty fundamentalist stripe. Eric was a nice person, but excessively sincere (an occupational hazard) and overtly religious enough that I often felt uncomfortable in his presence. His mother was the kind of person who gives “Christian” a good name; his brother, an atheist like me.

    My wife drifted from the usual vague childhood belief into no religion at all; eventually she became a Quaker with Buddhist leanings. She and I have fairly frequent discussions, but it isn’t clear that she believes in any standard notion of God.

    As far as I’m concerned, I don’t care what you believe or don’t believe, but I strongly object to other people trying to force their beliefs or practices on non-members of their particular sect. If you don’t tell me, I won’t inquire. But if you tell me UR DOIN IT RONG I will get pissed off indeed.

  54. Aarrgh! For “pafily”, read “family”. (Why can’t I preview any more?)

  55. Theophylact:

    [believing in God]

    as Jews, it really wouldn’t be obligatory

    Why is that?

  56. Good comments to be sure, although I am not surprised that the atheist side is the first to poke at the other side. Tolerance….?

  57. @Kevin: Because not every religion makes belief in the literal existence of a deity a central requirement. If you’re interested in how Judaism approaches the issue if belief may I respectfully note that the Web is full of resources on the subject?

  58. Should perhaps have suggested this topic myself. It’s entirely possible that the issue posed by the original inquirer will end up splitting my marriage in the near future: I’m a scientist and hence atheist* while my wife is Roman Catholic (and believes that the behaviour of the Church is irrelavant to one’s membership or otherwise of the set of beliefs promulgated by said Church, which is one of the issues we differ on).

    We discussed it well in advance – concluded that we were OK with offering both sides and (hence in passing) making it clear that we disagreed. We agree that knowledge of religion – especially various sects of Christianity, in the US – is important (and point out to our elder son, now 8, that one of the reasons I feel free to argue against Catholicism is that I have a decently deep understanding thereof).

    And yet: we’re failing to identify a combined approach that does not cause trauma, now that we’re actually here. I see attempts to provide a basis for the specific beliefs as dishonest, delusional and frankly stupid; for my part I have difficulty phrasing the discussion in a manner that’s seen as balanced and uninsulting. Gah. With some large portion of my right ventricle now openly on display, and advice (especially from those who’ve been through it) would be welcome. Very, very welcome.

    [*Yes, I know, there are people who claim to be the former but not the latter. That set includes not only my wife but most of my closest friends. Many hours and days – hell, weeks and years – of conversation later, I still don’t get it – a fact which actually hurts. They must have some basis for excluding $DEITIC_BELIEF_OF_CHOICE from the scientific method that I’ve not comprehended. Or possibly they’re just as intellectually dishonest as they seem to me. {I think the subset of that second option which is most likely is that the benefits of group membership are seen to outweigh the costs to internal consistency, accompanied by a choice not to probe too deeply. But while I can describe that approach, I don’t _understand_ it. The more when it gets applied to raising one’s kids.} I’m open to enlightenment – literally or figuratively – on that one too.]

  59. From theophylact above:
    “As far as I’m concerned, I don’t care what you believe or don’t believe.”

    I do, although I try to suppress it :). But I think it often matters – family, friends, schoolteachers, the students in my (neuroscience) classes.

  60. @Ewan: first, I’m so sorry.

    The useless-because-it’s-too-late advice is that you can’t smooth over real religious differences with “we’ll teach both and let the kid decide”. Particularly when the difference is that one of you strongly believes in X and the other one strongly believes X is stupid.

    The only enlightment I can give you is that you aren’t required to “get it”, only accept it. For many people, science is important for determining global energy policy, but not for determining what their faith is, or what makes them happy. (I’m guessing you did not choose to marry only after applying a scientific analysis to your feelings and determining that, based on objective criteria like immunological fitness, your wife was the biologically optimal mate.)

  61. Well put, as always.

    I was raised an atheist by a man who had been raised an Anglican. I married a faithful United Church adherent and we’re raising our daughter in that tradition because I believe that believing in something is better than believing in nothing.

    I was educated as a scientist, and found I couldn’t go too far asking “why?” before running into the microscopic shrug that is quantum mechanics, or the pan-galactic shrug that is an expanding universe. As a result, I entertained a reasonable doubt about the non-existence of a higher power. I don’t think of it as the Christian god, or the Moslem god, or Hindu or anything else. I think of it instead as a “because,” an ultimate answer to “why?”

    But that’s just my thoughts. What I believe is that we’re all just feeling the elephant, like the blind men on the road. Some feel the tail and find Jesus. Some touch the side and see Allah. I believe there’s something there, but it’s not what anyone says it is. I don’t believe people are qualified to tell me about God. They are, however, qualified to tell me about people and how to be one of the good ones. So I read the Gospels, and the Torah, the Tao and the Vishuddi Magga looking not so much for god, as for myself.

    When I want to know about God, I go for a walk. I listen to what can be heard and see what can be seen and believe that God is behind it all and that I’ll understand the reason for what I’m seeing and hearing about 5 minutes after I take my last breath. I’m looking forward to the answers, but I’m in no hurry to hear them.

    It’s not a religion, but it is a faith. When people want to categorize me, I tell them I’m a Buddhist by way of Groucho Marx because, hey, the world’s a funny place and the elephant I mentioned above could be wearing my pajamas.

  62. I don’t have any children of my own, but I assist in a youth group where part of it is connected to the Catholic Church (and part is not). Recently one of the Catholic leaders took it upon himself to organize a group of 8 -12 year old boys to participate in a local anti-abortion rally. The group administration had some trouble with that, but to be “religiously correct” we had to be sure what the motivation of our objections might be, so we ended up having to devote a lot of thought and discussion to the question. One of the important things that we came up with was that children are, by their very developmental nature, more susceptible to religious idea and thus make unfair targets. Up until the age of reason, they see the world as having “higher powers” like parents and gods. It was one of the hitching posts to which we had to anchor our objections when we confronted the leader in question.

    I find John’s approach remarkably balanced, and with all of the other unbalanced presentation of religion which is easily found on the Internet, it is very calming to see all of the comments here. But I think that some of the consideration has to be given to this particular susceptibility that I spoke of, …the fact that children are still children and their perspective has to be part of the equation.

  63. Marc: Those definitions are significantly over-simplified. Especially since these are identity markers for a lot of people. It’s often best to let people give their own labels, and use those.

    OK. Now I’m worried I’ve been usign the wrong definitions to describe myself for the last twenty years. checking webster.

    agnostic “a person who holds the view that any ultimate reality (as God) is unknown and probably unknowable; broadly : one who is not committed to believing in either the existence or the nonexistence of God or a god”

    Atheist is “one who believes that there is no deity”

    Religious is “devotion to an acknowledged ultimate reality or deity ”

    I think I was saying the same thing. I wasn’t trying to offend anyone. I was really just trying to figure out where wishy-washy agnostic fit next to the other definitions.

  64. mythago @67:
    The useless-because-it’s-too-late advice is that you can’t smooth over real religious differences with “we’ll teach both and let the kid decide”. Particularly when the difference is that one of you strongly believes in X and the other one strongly believes X is stupid.

    You can, actually. We’re doing it with our kids (9 and 7). I’m Catholic and my husband is an atheist. His dislike of Catholicism has reduced over the years; I guess he’s mellowing. But not, emphatically not, converting*. I to and fro about how observant I am, but I have always been a theist.

    It works because both of us feel, from our own perspectives and for our own reasons, that tolerance and domestic tranquility are more important than either of our approaches to belief. This comes easily to me, but harder to him. Like Evan, he’s occasionally treated me with contempt and disrespect, though at least he’s never doubted the sincerity of my belief in the validity of the scientific method**. And I, in my turn, have been angry at him from time to time because he has demonstrated exactly the hardheaded, hard-hearted intolerance that he claims to dislike in religious people.

    We worked through it. Because, as I say, we both think that tolerance of and respect for other people is a more important value to pass on to our children than any system of belief or lack thereof. They can make their own minds up on God, but I want the way they treat other people to be bone-deep habit.

    At the moment, the younger of our kids is a vague theist and the elder is a staunch atheist. When we get into discussions of God or religion, my husband and I both discuss the cultural aspects factually (“Muslims believe this…”) and the personal aspects as matters of opinion (“I believe this, but your father has a different view. And that’s OK. People of good will can differ about these things. You should ask him what he thinks.”)

    * Nor would I want him to. It’s not in his nature.
    ** Which scientific method tells me, after having experimented with various ways of living my life and organising my thoughts and ethics, that this particular one works for me. Also, it best explains a number of experiences that I have had, though since they were entirely interior, Evan and his ilk can feel free to call insanity or delusion.

  65. Ewan — … scientist and hence atheist … hence? There’s a fundamental axiom of science that says I can’t believe? Who knew! After all these years … is it possible you’ve confounded the truth that “science can not, and does not, study the supernatural” with the statement “there can be nothing that is supernatural.”? Most of the scientists I know have faiths of one sort or another. “Science is one of the tools He gave us to study His universe”, is one of the ways I’ve heard it put. I’m not saying that you have to become [insert disgusting religion here], but a little more tolerance of the unknown — and scientifically unknowable — might help your discussions.

  66. Commander Locke: “Goddamnit, Morpheus. Not everyone believes as you believe.”
    Morpheus: “My beliefs do not require them to.”

    I’ve encouraged my children and stepchildren to explore all religions so that they’re knowledgeable about them and can – as my nonreligious wife and I have done – totally freakin’ ace the Pew Center study on religion quiz ( – and choose their own path. My religious parents gave me the same choice. We are also teaching our children – as my parents taught me – not to use a personal belief system (or lack thereof) as some kind of chevron of spiritual or intellectual superiority.

    That is the difficult part in it all, I think. We are teaching our children to negotiate a world in which atheists think they’re smarter, Christians more blessed, Scientologists more clear, etc. – when the answer is as personal as it is unknowable. My hope is that, like John the Body Scalzi, the encouragement to learn about all faiths creates – if not empathy – at least understanding. It’s the active study of dogma, religious narrative/myth and then an intellectual inquiry as to what fits with one’s life that makes it non-wishy-washy.

  67. Greg@70:

    Speaking strictly for myself (I claim the title “atheist”), I would define John (for example) as an atheist, too. I am of course happy to let him and others call themselves whatever they wish, but this “I don’t believe in a deity, but since I can’t empirically disprove one, I claim the title “agnostic” business seems to me only slightly less wishy-washy than the “I don’t know if there’s a god, so I don’t think about it much” agnostic.

    Which is to say, if you don’t believe there’s a god, then you are an atheist. If you choose to be intellectually honest and acknowledge that the universe is big and confusing and we don’t know everything yet, this doesn’t, to my mind, actually make one an agnostic.

    I can’t help but feel that perhaps people are unwilling to commit hard to the term “atheist” because in our culture, people bearing that label are outright vilified in many circles, and at least slightly mistrusted in many more.

    In another explanation of the phenomenon, I suspect that many atheists claim the agnostic label because some part of their brain clings to the notion of deity. I, too, feel this on occasion. I prefer the explanation I gave to a friend one day: “I may be an atheist, but I still have an amygdala.”

    Which is to say that my recognizing the utter lack of concrete evidence of deity does not undo the benefits of my ancient ancestors having believed in one, and passed that little bit of neurology down to me in our DNA.

  68. Ewan #65 I’m so sorry that religious differences are causing conflict in your marriage. I am in a mixed marriage, myself. I am Catholic and my husband is an agnostic who was raised Lutheran. He’s funny because even though he doesn’t believe in God, he sometimes has strong opinions about how wrong the Catholic church is. (In fact, I recently forbade him to convert, because he would be insufferable having grown up such a protestant rule-following stickler. :-) We keep a sense of humor about it. It helps to step back from the politics. There is a lot going on in the worldwide church that is not very relevant on the parish level. Things got much better at our house when my son started wondering why Daddy wasn’t going to church with us on Sunday. My husband decided that it was more important to be together as a family than to separate over ideological differences, so he now comes to mass with us every Sunday. He stays in the pew for communion, and otherwise it’s no big deal. It’s 57.5 minutes out of his week, and we often have interesting discussions afterward. In addition, he has made friends at our church, and learned there are a lot of nice people there. Other bonuses include: 1) A front row seat to shocking hypocrisy. My agnostic husband attends mass more regularly than 90% of initiated Catholics. We have fun pointing that out to each other in a curmudgeonly way when the pews are empty on holy days of obligation. 2) Networking and community support. Our huge church is not the best for this, but they do have things like business networking events and other community-building opportunities. 3) A chance to think about and discuss moral issues on a weekly basis. How many people take an hour out of their day to talk about issues of social justice or to examine common conflicts and other hazards of living with people? 4) You may meet other non-believing spouses who are hanging around because they love someone who is Catholic–instant support and comiseration! (Plus another person to play the “Where are all the real Catholics on Good Friday?”) 5) DONUTS! Unbelievers like donuts, yes? St. Augustine wrote that eating donuts was the basis of any life of faith.

    I hope things work out. I’ve known a lot of happy marriages between people with some big religious and/or political differences. Don’t despair. I think you’ll find that kids are pretty resilient to indoctrination. As evidence, look around you at all of the lapsed Catholics who were raised by extremely observant parents. In fact, I have one atheist friend who believes all children should receive religious “vaccination” in childhood, to prevent them from becoming fanatical converts as adults. I think there’s something to that, actually. That which is withheld develops a disproportionate appeal.

  69. Ewan@65: I’m a scientist and hence atheist* while my wife is Roman Catholic … advice (especially from those who’ve been through it) would be welcome

    I was raised christian (creationists), became a hard atheist (evolutionist), went to college for engineering, thought logic could explain everything, and eventually ran into a bit of an existential problem attempting to answer for myself the question “Why am I here?” Not how did I get here (evolution, duh!), but, now that I’m here… what? Somewhere along the line, I discovered Zen. The thing I like about Zen is it really and truly does allow for both science and spirituality coexisting. Creationists are actively hostile towards science. And as a scientist, I was at one point hostile towards religion.

    For me, Zen altered the map so that there was room for both logic/reason and for spirituality and things that we hold sacred/important.

    The koans like “what is the sound of one hand clapping?” for me was a way to point out that logic cannot answer everything. There’s another koan that has a farmer put a baby goose in a glass bottle and raise it there until its big and then ask how does the farmer get the goose out of the bottle without breaking teh bottle or killing the goose? pointed me towards the idea that science can’t answer all questions. In my case, science and logic couldn’t answer “why am I here?” or “Now that I’m here, what now?”

    Other koans, for me, pointed to finding the sacred in everyday life. What is Satori? asks one monk. Six pounds of flax, replies the master. How do I achieve enlightenment? asks a monk. Have you eaten? asks the master. Yes, replies the monk. Then wash your bowl, said the master.

    You said you’re an atheist. The thing is the definition is rather limited in western use. I believe a person can be an atheist/agnostic and a follower of the spiritual aspects of Zen. Or if Zen itself has too much baggage for you, you could be atheist and still be spiritual. But in the west, when someone says they’re atheist, they often seem to fence off a lot of what I would call “spiritual” because they lump “spiritual” in with “dogmatic religion” and “flying spaghetti monsters” and such. That’s what I did when I first went from christian to atheist.

    If that’s what you did, then maybe what might help you is the same sort of thing that helped me, differentiating between science and spirituality, letting them have separate areas of operation, let them answer the the questions they’re designed to answer. It won’t help every disagreement you have with your wife around science/religion, but if you at least have room to allow for spirituality, and to allow that her religion helps her answers those questions, then at least in spiritual matters you would have room for more than one way to find the answer to “what now?” kinds of spiritual questions.

    Having space for science/spirituality won’t help if you’re arguing over whether the earth was created in six days versus billions of years. But maybe if you grant a little more space for the spiritual aspect of your wife’s religion, maybe she might grant a little bit of space for the logical aspect of your science. My wife and I are complete opposites in other areas and I often find the path to peace is to make a little more room for her than I had before.

  70. Ewan: I too am sorry to hear about what you’re going through. If this issue is potentially splitting your marriage, you may have broader issues to deal with than just a difference in religion, and it may be best to engage with your wife on those issues sooner rather than later.

    I’m not sure whether you consider your wife someone who “exclude[s] [their religion] from the scientific method” or someone who’s “intellectually dishonest”. If it’s simply the former, Mythago’s comment at #67 may be useful. It reflects that, while many of us value the scientific method, many of us do not see it as the only valid basis for beliefs and relationships. (Theistic religions generally include both belief and relationship.)

    But if you’re starting to entertain the other idea, you may want to take some more time with your wife to understand where she’s coming from. You don’t need to *agree* with her, mind you, or make her agree with you. But in the healthy marriages I’m most familiar with, the spouses can at least *respect* the other person, and understand that they have valid reasons for holding their beliefs and values (even if one doesn’t share all the beliefs and values of the other).

    My spouse and I have rather different religious beliefs (we’re another Catholic/non-Catholic household). It’s not been trivial dealing with that, but we’ve managed to understand each other and found ways of living that work for us as a couple and as parents. I hope you and your wife can find ways that work for you as well. (And if you happen to want to talk with a stranger about this, feel free to send me email.)

  71. Greg @70:
    Let me preface this by saying that I don’t think you’ve been careless or deliberately offensive.
    That said, I’m not necessarily willing to accept Webster’s as a proof that a definition isn’t oversimplified. :) More specifically, all three of those terms are broader than your and Webster’s definitions imply:
    “Religious” implies connection to (usually belief in) a religion, which is often an “ultimate reality or deity”. As I consider myself religious but do not believe in a deity, the “ultimate reality” side of that is pretty important. And it’s significantly different from “believes in God” which implies a single god, and to a lesser extent, the God of the Abrahamic religious tradition (Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and their various forms and descendants).
    “Atheist” can be used to mean “one who believes that there is no deity” but is used, especially by people who identify as atheists, to mean “one who does not believe that there is a deity”, which is a subtle but important distinction. The former definition sets belief in a specific deity as normal and defines the atheist as an aberration from that, while the latter definition is a more neutral statement.
    “Agnostic” can have a range of meanings, from a general “I dunno” which is, I think, what our host is describing as “wishy-washy” to a belief that the existence of a deity is unknowable, to a belief that while one doesn’t believe in a deity, one can’t prove its nonexistence, technically one doesn’t know.
    Note that these definitions are not necessarily exclusive to each other!

    tl;dr: religious beliefs are complicated, and as in any other complicated field, relying on simple dictionary definitions for the core terms can lead one astray.

  72. We appear to be doing that thing where we’re defining whether people are really atheist or agnostic, which I think is a very bad idea and which I find a bad idea every time it pops up here. It’s a fine way to go around in circles and make everyone involved unhappy, so I suggest we skip it.

    STRONGLY suggest.

  73. As a long-time non-believer who has somewhat recently felt comfortable enough to call himself atheist (and who’s married to someone who identifies as agnostic), I have a question for the Christians in mixed marriages: Is your partner going to hell (if your denomination swings that way)? Or even worse, your children, if they follow your spouse’s footsteps?

    I ask in all seriousness, because many people seem OK with this, and I’m not sure I would be.

  74. @ Ewan

    A wise man once said, “We need not think alike to love alike”. I find that useful when listening to others with inscrutable (to me) belief systems. He also said that he believed in “deed, not creeds”. I don’t think we can convince anyone to believe differently than they already do, at least I can’t, but that doesn’t mean I’m wrong. Doesn’t mean I’m right either. It means that whether we believe it was God or luck or plate tectonics, we should probably still give something to the Red Cross.

  75. I don’t have any problems opposing these people, and letting them know just what bad Christians I think they are. I’ve don’t have any problems pointing out these people to my child, either.
    As I Christian I must say thank-you and please continue!
    It saddens me that the behaviour of so many Christians is a witness against Christ rather than for Him.

  76. Oddball viewpoint:

    Grandma started trying to make a good little Baptist out of me, but Mother was having none of that and started taking us to a little Methodist church, where she still to this day teaches Sunday School. I was a perfect goody two shoes (didn’t cuss, didn’t f***, didn’t drink much) until just shy of 21; that was the year everything changed. To make a long story short, I consider myself lower-case-u universalist, with strong Wiccan and Pacific Islander tendencies… I’ve had my weird-s***-o-meter pegged way too many times NOT to believe there is Something Bigger Than The Both Of Us.

    That said, I too think that exposing the kids to as many ideas as possible is a Good Thing. Among my friends are Jews, Catholics, Protestants, a Baha’i, Wiccans, Mormons, Faerie, I think my favorite hammered dulcimer player is Buddhist, a Native American… I’m kinda sad I don’t know a Muslim. I’ve watched a few kids grow into their ideas; watching a young gentleman stand up for his agnosticism sure made his Wiccan mom proud.

    Too many people are owned by their beliefs, and get led into perdition by people with gold-edged books and a good speaking voice and frankly evil (or at least the love of money, not any god) in their hearts. Between a Methodist minister and a philosophy professor, I learned to own my ideas, and I’m grateful to both gentlemen for teaching me this. Bill (the preacher)’s favorite phrase was,
    “These are my ideas. You can’t have them.” (Naturally I stole that idea… :)

    (He wouldn’t let us call him “Rev. Landiss.” Bill, please. I miss him.)

    All this to say, ya done good, John. I think you knew that already, which is better. And thanks for sharing.

  77. @ Ewan

    That sounds like a really bad place to be at. Sorry to hear it. I’m a big fan of getting couples counseling through either a professional counselor and/or religious-type person. Your core beliefs may be more similar than you currently believe.

    One thing that helped me, in the midst of an existential conflict, was my older brother saying, “Dude, it’s not like you have to figure all this out today”. I wanted to have all the answers NOW and then be able to convince others of their rightness. I guess my brother reminded me that I wasn’t alone in my occasional confusion and fury at the world. It helped me change my perspective. I began thinking, “Well, maybe if I give myself some time, I’ll learn something new that will change my perspective.”

    Of course, the next thing he said was, “And remember, you aren’t getting out of this alive”. It was funny and dark and true, and I realized no matter how sure I am of whatever system of thought I subscribe to today, eventually, I’ll find out the truth. So why worry too much while I’m alive?

    Later, in my first marriage, I spent time with someone who was Evangelical Christian, and who constantly doubted whether I was Buddhist. That was a major source of conflict for a while, but not the main reason the marriage ended. It just seemed so bizarre to me that she could not accept that I could believe something not entirely consistent with her beliefs, or even with my own actions. People are complicated creatures. None of us are 100% internally consistent. Well, at least I’ve never met someone who is.

  78. @Mike (#80): I’m a Christian, but I don’t spend a lot of time worrying about hell (or, for that matter, heaven), and to be honest, I have trouble taking seriously other Christians who do. I tend to feel that if you’re practicing Christianity mainly for the alleged reward (or to avoid punishment), you’re sort of doing it wrong?

    Anyway, long ago, I decided that the Christian God couldn’t be simultaneously unconditionally loving and willing to condemn millions of otherwise-innocent souls to doom in a lake of fire. It just doesn’t hold up: What does He do about the people who were born before Jesus? Or the people who came after but were never visited by missionaries? Or what about the people who heard the Good News, but from horrible people who emphasized the worst parts? The mercy promised by the God of Christ just doesn’t jibe with the idea that you might burn forever thanks to an accident of geography or chronology.

    So I decided to disregard it and just worry about my own soul, and that’s why I was comfortable marrying an atheist/agnostic. (Also, I figure: Might not God sort of want me hanging out with a nonbeliever? If I marry another Christian, well, that’s a soul He already has. But if I ever manage to convert my wife—one more point for our side!) Sometimes, of course, I do wish I’d married another Christian. But sometimes I also wish I’d married a blonde, or a science-fiction fan, or a person with a steady job with great benefits, instead of another self-employed writer. (My wife, on the other hand, is always 100 percent thrilled to have married me, obviously.)

  79. After a lifetime in the IT business, I am now going to a Unitarian-Universalist seminary (Starr King School for the Ministry) on a part time basis. It’s only my second semester, so I’m taking the second half of a two semester course on Buddhist traditions and I’m studying Universalism. I find the history and many of the people to be very compelling.

    I left Christianity decades ago and have no interest in going back for more than a short visit every now and then. Unitarian-Universalism is one of the few places I could go.

    If I can be of any assistance or provide any pointers, please feel free to contact me.

  80. #68 Your phrase ” I entertained a reasonable doubt about the non-existence of a higher power” validates the time spent here reading all the comments. People of faith do in fact often entertain reasonable doubt about the existence of their higher power. People of non-faith, as you observe, do in fact entertain reasonable doubt about the non-existence of any supernatural higher power. At the end of the day, I think we all, whether people of faith or non-faith, must admit to the moments we doubt our worldviews. I am of the faith camp. My favorite Bible verse reads, “Lord, I believe, help my unbelief.” I treasure my doubts. Treasure yours, Ulyssess.

    Thanks John for again asking all of us to lay off trying to relabel each other. I recall you have done that before on prior threads dealing with these issues. In support of your strong encouragement (not that you need it–you do have the mallet) let me add:

    Remember your language arts classes in school everyone (Willis puts on his English teacher hat). Words come with dictionary meanings (denotations) but also connotative meanings accumulated around the words by being in use within culture. In Western culture religious carries a positive connotation for most, agnostic a neutral connotation, and atheist a negative connotation. Many atheists by the denotataive definition likely self-identify as agnostic because of the negative connotation of the word within the culture. Quite a reasonable thing to do to deflect the negative connotations, if you think about it. I personally admire the atheist who owns up to the label for their courage in standing against our culture’s association of negative connotations to the meaning of word. Enough said.

  81. Todd@84: I’m a big fan of getting couples counseling through either a professional counselor

    A good professional counselor, yes. We were going over some rough patches when we first got married and the first two counselor’s we tried were crap. The third one, though, probably saved our marriage. So, yay for good counselors.

  82. @ Ewan:
    First, and most important, I strongly agree with the suggestion that you and your wife seek relationship counselling together if you aren’t already. One thing I can attest to from my own experience of troubled relationships is that one cannot survive without open, honest and mutually respectful communication.

    I can speak only from the viewpoint of a committed Christian who also fully accepts the scientific method, along with evolutionary theory, the geological age of the Earth, etc, etc, and sees no conflict with them. If it helps at all, may I suggest that you consider the difference between methodological naturalism and ontological naturalism? htom @ 72 touched on the same point. As others have said, perhaps you may find that you can give space and acceptance to your wife’s faith without requiring you to share it, or her to abandon it.

  83. As someone who can legitimately profess three religions, I always get a kick out of claims that religions are mutually exclusive; as someone who doesn’t know how to do belief, I also get a kick out of claims that belief or lack thereof are relevant to religious practice. (I mean, admittedly one of the religions is Unitarian Universalism, which is pretty easygoing on belief and practice.)

    I commented recently something to the effect that my job as a parent is to introduce my child(ren) politely to the stuff, not to demand that they make friends with it after the polite introduction. I tend to figure that religion is much more like falling in love than anything else, and if my daughter (I have no other kids yet) doesn’t fall in love with one of the things in her immediate family, or that of the church we attend, or whatever else, that’s okay. I’ve given her a solid background to understand her family, and, like was mentioned in comment #5, a pluralistic religious community if she needs or wants one.

  84. Lately I’ve been calling myself an agnostic flirting with atheism. (I guess I’m proud to be wishy-washy?)

    Religious practices and religious communities have given me too much for me to comfortably call myself an out and out atheist. it has seemed (in my limited experience) that atheists both disavow faith *AND* the utility of religion as anything beyond an opiate for the masses. I like that while both staunch atheists and fundamentalists get angry and righteous and disgusted with the other side, I’ve never heard about/met an angry and confrontational agnostic. (er. yet.)

    I was raised in a “Hinduism for Christians with lots of mysticism thrown in”-kind of household. My grandmother and all the mothers before her were daughters of Seventh Day Baptist ministers (no card playing, no dancing, can play the piano a little). In college I gravitated towards Quaker faith and practice and became an official member of that community. (So disappointed the initiation ceremony did not involve walking across hot coals or at least boiling oatmeal. *sigh*)

    to Ewan, I’m sorry. I think earlier posts about respecting each other and valuing each other are right on target. Vive la différence, etc…

    When I was first starting to ask questions about religion (nothing like going to a little friend’s church class and watching a film where the Jewish boy prayed and the boys stayed trapped and lost but when the blond Christian boy prayed, his father found them and saved them to make a 6 year old ask questions… tearful, sobbing, terrified questions…) my mother said that any religion that lasted more than a generation or two must have *some* Truth in it. That stuck with me, and helps when I need to interact with people whose belief system seems ridiculous to me.

    I graduated from a liberal arts college with two majors– English and Religion. I loved stories, and I saw other people’s religions as systems of useful/illustrative stories in an anthropological as well as metaphysical and ethical way.

    Before I met him, my husband got religion in a major Evangelical manner. Luckily this period was brief and he was a nice quiet Quaker by the time I met him. We met while I was living with a saintly Quaker woman, during a young Quaker retreat, while he was working and living in a Quaker meetinghouse. We had a perfectly lovely Quaker wedding eleven years and two children ago.

    Together, we have slowly moved away from using religion to define why we do what we do. I know I am really lucky about that– I think my own movement away from organized religion was hastened by his because I couldn’t bear the friction it would have caused. That and the closest Quaker meeting is two hours away and I’ve grown to enjoy having my Sunday mornings at home… But we still use religious language occasionally because it often encapsulates philosophical and ethical ideas so well. Why reinvent the wheel, even if the material isn’t what we would have chosen?

    One of our sons went to a Catholic school when he was 3 for two years. It was when the teachers talked about Santa and God in the same sentence that I started to question the Deism I had taken for granted all my religiously complex but spiritually consistent life.

    I like so many of the comments others have posted; I want to add something to the discussion but I don’t know if it’s helpful. Please take it as a flailing attempt at helpfulness. :} …My best most wonderful religion professor was delighted when a dear friend of mine took her intro class– my friend was a physics major. “You know,” said my professor, “I looked through the whole course catalog, and the only two departments to use the word ‘cosmology’ in their class descriptions were Physics and Religion.” …I really do believe that science and religion have a lot in common. Both are using sets of tools to answer questions. The disciplines may ask different questions– but I find that interesting people are full of questions. It’s the people who have all the answers who give me the heebie jeebies.

    Anyway, Ewan, whether you find your way via philosophy, religion, couples counseling or the scientific method– I hope you and your wife are able to find a path wide enough for both of you to travel on it together.

    Good luck and good speed to us all on whatever paths we find ourselves on.

  85. John, I find it wholly refreshing that as a parent, you welcome and foster in Athena a questioning, curious nature. I have no doubt that you and the missus are top-notch parents. Well done, sir, well done.

  86. @ everyone – 67, 71, 75, 76, 77, 81, 84, and on : thanks, deeply, folks. I used to hang out on alt.callahans when it was smaller and more cohesive; the vibe is similar. Some helpful/thought-provoking stuff.

    (One thing I omitted is that a sizable piece of the problem is very specific to Catholicism and, among other issues, the Church’s abetting and concealment of pedophilic abuse. That’s the only issue, in the specific case of my wife and I, that’s provoked what’s been seen by her – and probably is – the rigid intolerance and I guess ‘contempt’ might not be too harsh on my part.)

    @mythago, 67: well… that sounds very Randian, and no. I did win on the ‘won’t live with you until we’re married’ versus ‘won’t even consider getting married until we have lived together’ debate, though :).

    @72 (and maybe 89): I was insufficiently clear, I think; and thanks: I can conceive of (and have actively sought, several times, as a road-to-Damascus experience would certainly simplify things… well, unless it led be to be an adent believer in something other than Catholicism; sorry, sidetrack) the existence of a supernatural being; and one that created the universe(s) would be (as noted) not much more mystical than the Big Bang or QEM. But *picking* a specific human-defined set of rituals – especially and specifically Catholic rituals – and believing that they’re One True? That’s the part that gets excluded for me by application of logic/science/whatever.

    @75: I’ve been to services a bunch of times, unsurprisingly (and I took a couple of years back in undergrad to make sure I’d gone through the services or equivalent of as many faiths as I could find). Sadly, the only social contacts made thus far are with requests to picket abortion clinics or (this one amused me) picket classes teaching that homosexuality may have a biological basis. One of which was mine. You make an excellent point about the kids being resistant, and that’s something I should note more – certainly true in this case. (I don’t like doughnuts…)

    It’s very much true that many of the *results* of her Catholic upbringing are aspects of my wife that I admire, adore and cherish – rigid ethicality, kindness, belief in service, hard work. As John has noted, much – perhaps all – of what Jesus is noted as having personally taught is either superb or innocuous. I hear many of the comments about focussing on ‘deeds not creeds’ – thanks konarosemary.

    [I know, tl;dr. Helpful, though, i hope, and sincere thanks again.]

    @76: I ended up (so far, anyway) in the Dennett camp: that the questions about ‘why am I here?’ or ‘where did I come from?’ really do have the answers ‘no reason’ and ’emergent property of a bunch of neurons firing in synchrony.’ But there *is* great joy for me (harkening back to 67, joy for which I seek no scientific explanation in the moment!) in a crisp dawn, a really good cup of coffee, my children growing.. ..I’ll think on this.

    @80: yep, my wife thinks that I’m going to hell, and yep, it bothers her. Bothers her about the children, too; the most pressing being that our younger son is not (yet) baptised.

  87. I also identify as an “agnostic.”
    It’s simultaneously a statement of your belief, attitude, and an acknowledgement of humility.
    In contrast, the word “atheist” seems to come with almost as much baggage as “Christian.”

  88. @Mike #80- In my experience, people who tend to hardcore believe in hell [enough to think that people they know could be roasted and tortured forever] also tend to think their stripe of Christianity is so important that they won’t marry outside of it. So generally, they try very hard to arrange their lives in advance so that conflict [spouse/kids roasting] doesn’t come up.

    (Interestingly, the Christian blogosphere has imploded this last week over a new book by Rob Bell on hell. Its premise is “In the end, Love Wins.” This has made some people who call themselves Christians very angry, which I find ironic and more than a bit sad.)

    @John- I wish everyone could teach their kids so clear-headedly. Given Athena’s interest in Lent, I’m wondering if the churches in your slice of Ohio tend to be die-hard conservative, or if there are any “emerging church” congregations—their picture of Jesus aligns with your bumper-sticker post. The label “Christian” has gotten almost as reactionary as “Muslim” in America, and I’d much rather be called a “follower of Jesus,” because I think you are right on about the forgiveness thing.

  89. Gary@87: Western culture religious carries a positive connotation for most, agnostic a neutral connotation, and atheist a negative connotation.

    Just because conservatives attempt to use “liberal” as a dirty word, doesn’t mean “liberal” has that connotation.

    What you’re pointing to is more about being nonreligious in a world that is mostly religious and has a history of violence towards nonreligious individuals. Even if you don’t get stoned to death or burned at the stake or put under house arrest for blasphemy these days (though sueing for “separation of church and state” might force you to move out of your home), there are still nonviolent, but real world effects to being nonreligious when most everyone else is religious. It puts you in a minority, it can exclude you from a group, and people are generally social creatures who don’t like being ostracized. This happens on a microscale when one individual is agnostic or atheist and the rest of the family is religious. It often becomes easier to NOT tell everyone else you’re an atheist or agnostic than to deal with a gaggle of family members all pecking at you with questions, why? Why? WHY? To borrow a phrase, I don’t think I’ve fully “come out of the closet” to everyone around me about my current state of beliefs or lack thereof.

    It’s not that “atheist” or “agnostic” is a term with negative “connotations”. People aren’t avoiding self labeling because it doesn’t “sound” nice, like using saying “put to sleep” instead of “kill” or something. It’s that being atheist or agnostic in a micro or macro culture that is mostly religious comes with real negative consequences.

    my definitional questions weren’t trying to relabel anyone. If someoen decides its just easier to invoke social camoflage around their beliefs, I wouldn’t “out” them to their friends and family on some kind of weird, warped principle. I was defining the terms I knew and asking where “wishy washy” landed in the lexicon. I get the definitions are simplifications. I’m cool with that. And if people want to relabel themselves, I’m fine with that too. But I really don’t think the reason they’re doing it is because of connotations inherent in the terms, so much as the consequences the world would put on them.

  90. Ewan@93: But there *is* great joy for me (harkening back to 67, joy for which I seek no scientific explanation in the moment!) in a crisp dawn, a really good cup of coffee, my children growing.

    I think that’s pretty much what the “go wash your bowl” koan is saying. Find the sacred in this world. Dishes and laundry don’t really do it for me, so we bought appliances for that.

    But yeah, find what’s sacred for you in your life.

  91. Ewan@93 Road to Damascus experiences, maybe mine were not the real thing. They never lasted more than a couple of months, and mostly caused problems than they solved. QEM was part of my “conversion” to faith (not religion); the beauty, how this glorious puzzle just all fit together. We’re being challenged, not to believe, that’s easy, but to understand. When you can’t understand, then you fall back to beliefs. Which flavor of beliefs, as long as they’re not harming non-followers, I don’t see as especially significant or useful. Those that are intolerant of others I try to avoid, but they’re like mosquitoes, everywhere. Finding good marriage / couples counseling can be tricky and I don’t have any good clues as to how; I’d ask friends. May the journey find you and your wife peace and happiness.

  92. I’m late to the party. But for those out there struggling to find a label for their non-theism, here is one that seem to strike the right cord with me: Ignostic

    “The view that a coherent definition of God must be presented before the question of the existence of god can be meaningfully discussed. Furthermore, if that definition is unfalsifiable, the ignostic takes the theological noncognitivist position that the question of the existence of God (per that definition) is meaningless”

  93. Greg @96
    I’ve no problem with your analysis. You say, “I really don’t think the reason they’re doing it is because of connotations inherent in the terms, so much as the consequences the world would put on them.” I would counterpoint saying the consequences the world puts on people creates the connotations to the very words we use. I really see us as saying the same idea from two different angles. I spend a fair amount of instructional time with my high school students decoding the denotative and connotative meanings of words. I am just sensitive to how connotation affects the things we do and say.

  94. Regardless of your persuasion, knowledge is not a bad thing. And wonder, reverence, beauty, awe are not the sole domain of any religion.

    “A religion old or new, that stressed the magnificence of the universe as revealed by modern science, might be able to draw forth reserves of reverence and awe hardly tapped by the conventional faiths. Sooner or later, such a religion will emerge.” —Carl Sagan

  95. Ewan @93: (I don’t like doughnuts…)

    You know, I am a Deist who can accept in others a wide range of beliefs, from the Fundamentalist Christian to the hard-core Atheist, from the Orthodox Jew to the “wishy-washy agnostic.”

    But a man who DOESN’T LIKE DOUGHNUTS?!! I have an extremely hard time even wrapping my mind around that one. ;-)

  96. I was born to a Jewish-Catholic marriage. Although my parents weren’t religious, a number of my relatives were, so I was exposed extensively to both faiths, particularly Catholicism, while growing up. My parents didn’t practice religion, and discussion of religion in my nuclear family was similar to discussion of literature or history–it was interesting subject matter, not a way of life or a personal belief system. And since my various relatives all wanted me to choose their own religions, they tried, if anything, to make each faith attractive to me as a child, rather than cramming anything down my throat. So in each case, my personal emotional imprintings from each religion were very positive, in that I mostly react to Catholicism and Judaism, emotionally, as something which my various grandparents, all of whom I adored, shared with me in my childhood as something that was important in their lives.

    That said, I became an atheist when I was about 6 years old. When being exposed to multiple faiths, one of the first things I realized, when I had enough brain development to process it, was that Catholics and Jews were each telling quite a different story about God, Jesus, the past, and the future. And it soon dawned on me that these stories weren’t based on verifiable facts (ex. vanilla ice cream was pale and chocolate ice cream was dark), but rather on what they chose to believe–either because they’d been raised that way, or had married that way, or had one day decided they liked that story and converted that way. Everyone was believing the version–among multiple possible versions–that they chose to believe. This meant to me that there wasn’t a true version, just a bunch of stories, and you decided which ones worked for you. And at six (apparently already a critic and a skeptic), I didn’t find ANY of the stories convincing, and I decided I didn’t believe any of them. I didn’t mind that others did, but now that I understand this was a matter of choice, I recognized that none of this made sense to me or worked for me.

    And as the years followed and I met kids from additional religions, the conversations I had with them further cemented those above convictions for me. Additionally, as my education progressed and I started reading about polytheistic and animist cultures, I also realized that monotheism itself is just another point of view, nothing more than that. (This sort of thing did NOT make me popular with local parents, and my best friend’s parents even tried to prevent her from having any more contact with me. Happily, though only about 9 years old, she refused to cooperate, and we remained friends into adulthood.)

    Since I’ve known very religious people from a wide variety of religions my entire life, I’ve always been very polite about religion, as long as it doesn’t intrude on civil rights or moral rights (ex. such as the right to choose one’s friends regardless of religion). Living in a very religious society (the US), I have often found that consideration is NOT returned, and a disturbingly large number of people in our culture are totally wigged out by someone who hasn’t chosen a particular sets of stories to believe and doesn’t worship (or even believe in) any deities. Which is very much how I define my own path–I think about the meaning of life, spiritual growth, and moral development all the time. I just don’t worship or believe in any deities. (I also find much of the Bible, which book I know better than many people I’ve met who claim to believe in it, a rather barbaric document, to be blunt. If you pick and choose carefully, there are some very worthwhile ideas in it… but there is more ignorance and brutality in it than there is stuff I’d want to embrace in my own values or teach to a child.)

  97. I think that this piece should be required reading for all parents. Well done, John!

    Having met more than my share of un-Christlike Christians in church, I rejected the idea of organized religion a long time ago. I think I do believe in a higher power, but not sure if it would satisfy most definitions of God. Bottom line, I guess I’m just not sure. That being said, I gave my children as much as exposure to church as they wanted as they grew up and left them to make their own decisions. As young adults, they’ve rejected the hypocrisy they see in most organized religion, but they are also forming their opinions about their belief in God over time. It will be interesting to see where it leads them.

  98. I too consider myself a “non-wishy-washy” agnostic, and yet that means something completely different to me than the way John lays it out, and quite possibly the opposite. My focus here isn’t with the claim of agnosticism, but rather with the description of Wishy-Washy.

    I think the core concept of agnosticism is not knowing. The question of deity seems to be an a priori — it is a given, rather than something that can be verified or falsified. So to come out and say, “I don’t believe in a god nor believe one is required to explain the universe, but I acknowledge I can’t prove one doesn’t or never did exist,” is to come out on one side of the a priori. Not to say that this disqualifies John as an agnostic (it doesn’t) but rather to point out that it makes sense that some would find this stance primarily atheistic, because it is.

    To put it in perspective, suppose John had said, “I believe in a god, I think it helps explain the universe, but I acknowledge I can’t prove it.” He could equally lay claim to a form of agnosticism, and many would see in his stance a position of faith. But would this qualify as a form of Non-Wishy-Washy? This leaning strongly towards one side or the other?

    Over at They Get Letters, Julie O seems to think so. She describes herself as a Wishy-Washy Agnostic, and eventually describes it quite succinctly: “…it is a conflict. Here I am stuck in the middle of two sides. I have an intellectual side that wants to embrace fully and exclusively the scientific view of the universe, but I have a, for lack of a better word, spiritual side that won’t let me. My spiritual side makes me want to believe in something beyond the known physical reality, but my intellectual side won’t let me. So I feel the attacks of both sides who hurl accusations of ignorance and confusion.”

    What I find… ironic… is that given the basic position of agnosticism as not knowing, I would consider Julie’s agnosticism much less wishy-washy than John’s. The former is rooted in a deep conflict, of having two (or more) competing paradigms vying for expression, and struggling to find a place that brings both sides together. The latter, on the other hand, is not a strong expression of not knowing… it’s more of a ritualistic acknowledgment against certitude, rather than a deep embrace of not-knowing. Agnostically speaking, I just find it… wishy-washy! It’s like saying, “I sort of believe that I don’t know.”

    Perhaps what I’m really driving at is that there’s an agnosticism that leads one to pick sides (generally termed “not-wishy-washy”) and another that leads to not picking at all (“wishy-washy”), but what of the agnosticism that leads to embracing both sides? It seems to me that that sort of agnosticism would be the least wishy-washy of them all, to fully employ multiple and contradictory points of view simultaneously. Or perhaps a better description of that would be radical — going to the root, as it were, of not knowing.

    ~ Jane ;)

    Doesn’t “not-wishy-washy” sound like a wishy-washy term?

  99. Jane, I think part of what your pointing at is whether people define “agnostic” in terms of belief or in terms of knowledge. The terms, at least by their dictionary definitions, are orthoganal and allows for cross products:

    Agnostic/Atheist: I believe god does not exist, but I know I can’t prove it.
    Agnostic/Religious: I believe god exists, but I know I can’t prove it.

    Hm, actually, if you remove “agnostic”, you end up with what most people
    think the terms mean:

    Atheist: I believe god doesn’t exist and I *know* he doesnt exist
    Religious: I believe god exists and I *know* he does exist

    This is how a lot of people think of atheists and religious types: certain of the knowledge of their beliefs. Whichi means without the “agnostic” modifier, Atheist means “certain atheist” and “religious” means “certain religious”.

    But that ends up meaning that “agnostic” is really an adjective, rather than a noun in and of itself. I’m still not exactly sure what people mean when they say agnostic as a noun. Having just written the above, agnostic seems to function as an an adjective only, so when they noun-ify it, it confuses me.

    For me, I would define myself as spiritual agnostic, where agnostic means I do not hold beliefs about the existence or nonexistence of god, at least none of any significance. I have passing thoughts sometimes, but I don’t have a belief system per se regarding god, God, or gods, either for their existence or nonexistence. But that’s not “agnostic” as a noun. amstrad@99 linked to “ignostic”, which I had never heard of, but describes me probably better than agnostic does. Which reinforces the idea that “agnostic” is an adjective that can modify “religious” and “atheist”.

    This would make “ignostic” a noun, an object in itself: Someone without a belief system for either the existence or nonexistence of god.

    (certain) Atheist: I believe god doesn’t exist and I *know* he doesnt exist
    Agnostic/Atheist: I believe god does not exist, but I know I can’t prove it.
    Agnostic/Religious: I believe god exists, but I know I can’t prove it.
    (certain) Religious: I believe god exists and I *know* he does exist
    Ignostic: I hold no belief systems about God’s existence or non existence,
    because I know I can’t prove or disprove it, and the question is meaningless.

    Which means I have been using the terms the wrong way. So, maybe I should say I’m a spiritual Ignostic instead of spiritual agnostic. Spiritual meaning finding the sacred in this world. Ignostic meaning no belief systems about God.

    And after all this I still don’t know what a wishy washy agnostic is. John said he was an “agnostic of the non-wishy-washy sort (i.e., I don’t believe in a god nor believe one is required to explain the universe, but I acknowledge I can’t prove one doesn’t or never did exist”. All I can figure is a wishy-washy agnostic is someone who says they can neither prove nor disprove the exisistenc or nonexistence of god, but says God might exist anyway? Which would be “agnostic religious”? Maybe? Or maybe an “ignostic”? I don’t know. There is something about the way that people are using the terms that I still don’t understand.

  100. At the risk of being a bore, you bring up a bit of a hobby-horse of mine, and I’d like to ride it for a moment :-).

    One could (if one wished to) classify you as an atheist, not an agnostic. Why? Well, you don’t believe in God – you are a (without) theism (belief in a deity or deities). Philosophy will call this “weak atheism” because the statement “I do not believe there is a god or gods” is a weak statement, versus the stronger statement “There is no god or gods.”

    Gnosis is a type of spiritual knowledge – in one sense (you really don’t know if there is or isn’t a deity or deities) you don’t have it. In another sense, you *do* have it – you’ve answered the question “is there a god or are there gods?” to your satisfaction. (There’s a “strong” form of agnosticism too – “The question can’t be answered!” versus “I can’t answer the question.”)

    So, what are you “really”? Well, you say “agnostic.” That’s good enough for me. But you could also validly choose atheist.

    The reason this is a hobby horse for me is because I had to ponder the whole “what is the difference between an agnostic and a weak atheist?” and getting the difference, seeing/feeling it, really meant something for me. Maybe I’m too-easily amused :-).

  101. I’m a strong agnostic. “I don’t know and you don’t either.” This means that I also don’t do belief. Neither of these is in conflict with my basic theism, by which I mean an understanding of the universe which contains gods.

    I operate in an act-as-if paradigm. The stuff I do is stuff that I find both useful and beautiful; if I am “wrong” in some kind of objective universe the worst case scenario is that I have done some daffy things and thought I benefitted from them. The feelings of well-being are as genuine as any other subjective experience. Given the possibility that I am delusional about my experiences, I have at least derived benefit from them and suspect that the overall evidence is that I have done a little less harm than I might otherwise.

    (The gods don’t seem to care. “If someone asks if you’re a god, you say YES.”)

  102. Greg: Part of what fascinates me about these waters is this separation of “belief” and “knowledge”. I tend to lump them together under the superordinate category of “conceptual frameworks,” which is just a fancy way of saying “maps”. I suppose most people conceive of “knowledge” as those maps which can be (and hopefully have already been) empirically measured, while “belief systems” covers those maps which cannot.

    Given that, let’s look at the etymology of the term. “Agnostic” was coined by Thomas Henry Huxley back in 1870, which isn’t so very long ago: “One who professes that the existence of a First Cause and the Essential Nature of things are not and cannot be known.” I don’t know about you, but terms like “first cause” and “essential nature” sound pretty esoteric to me… that is to say, they seem to fall under the rubric of “beliefs”, or “givens”, or a prioris. So as far as I can tell, Huxley is simply clarifying this division of “belief” and “knowledge”, and that an “agnostic” is one who claims that an a priori cannot truly be known.

    As such, Scalzi is quite correct in describing himself as an agnostic, because he makes this claim. However, what I find ironic is his use of the term “not-wishy-washy” to describe his choice to employ a single conceptual framework, in his case the one without the “given” of a deity, because it’s also a way of saying that he is a wishy-washy atheist (“I don’t believe in a god even though — or perhaps because — I can’t be certain”.) I would aver that the employment of a single conceptual framework (regardless of what it is) is a wishy-washy stance for an agnostic — be it agnostic/atheist, agnostic/spiritual, or (and especially) ignostic.

    LongHairedWeirdo:In a sense, all “gnosis” is simply the result of experience, if not “experience” itself. Even when it comes to Science, simply the *experience* of perceiving the results of an experiment is still just that — an experience. Those experiences help us build our conceptual frameworks, but it goes both ways: our conceptual frameworks modulate our experiences. In other words, our “maps” have a tendency to limit our exploration of “the territory” — especially if “the territory” is understood as just that, as opposed to “the territories.”

    This touches on what Richard Dawkins calls “the hard problem,” the “problem” of Consciousness. This “problem” results from our embodiment, which leads us to conceive of the world in a bifurcated way: The Outside, and The Inside. So there are (at least) two territories. Furthermore, the “maps” we have of Out There are a *part* of In Here! It’s like a big plate of squidward spaghetti, it is.

    Dw3t-Hthr: I think you get to the heart of the Big Question, which really has nothing to do with which framework is “right” or “true” or whatever, but rather whether the framework serves one’s intentions. And when it comes to Intention, that is something you certainly *do* know, and so can everyone else (for themselves, of course).

    So what do we do when our intentions change? From my experience, different frameworks serve different intentions more or less well. Therefore, I reserve the right to change frameworks at will. To put it metaphorically, if I want to find the highest peak in Alaska, I’ll want a topological map. If I want to find my way to and around Main Street in Peoria, I’ll want a street map. If I want to explore my inner archetypes, I’d turn to a mythological map… or better yet, I’d engage in mythopoesis and make my own damn map. Engaging in mythopoesis, in turn, is well served by examining many other maps — maps of the territory of mythology. (If George Lucas is masturbating, then Joseph Campbell is a do-it-yourself pornographer.) Anyways, the more maps I can use well, the more intentions I can fulfill. I want as many as I can fit in my glove box!

    However, this business of “changing maps” is easier said than done. I think it takes practice, and a certain amount of credulity… It takes, for lack of a better way of putting it, exercising multiple and often contradictory beliefs, or “givens”. Rather than constraining myself to “not doing belief,” I also do all kinds of belief.

    I think this “polyphrenicism” is the least wishy-washy form of Agnosticism, for it goes the furthest in demonstrating and demarcating the limits of what I can (and more importantly can’t) “know”. One is *constantly* engaged in disconnecting from conceptual frameworks, which may be the heart of agnosticism. This is why I think the so-called “not-wishy-washy agnosticism” really isn’t as strong as it thinks it is, because (in general) it tends to settle on a particular map, at which point the process of agnosticism tends to fade away. Paradoxically, the strongest form of agnosticism practically requires its own periodic (or better yet, simultaneous) rejection! (Mind you, not all intents and purposes may be well served by this approach. YMMV, and beware of nosebleeds.)

    Anyways, getting back to the main topic of the OP, which is oriented around raising children (and Athena in particular) I wholeheartedly endorse John’s methods, especially because he professes agnosticism. Athena gets the opportunity to explore The Territories using a variety of maps. How could I argue against that?

    ~ Jane ~

    p.s. Wishy-Washy has its uses, too, as it reflects the ability to “wash away wishes” — which is to say, sometimes we may have certain Intentions that we choose to discard or prioritize. Sometimes the “strongest” form of something is not always the most adaptive.

  103. Jane: Part of what fascinates me about these waters is this separation of “belief” and “knowledge”.

    Ah. I think part of the problem is “belief” can mean (1) fuzzy knowledge or (2) religious or spiritual experience. I was intending “belief” to point towards the spiritual affairs, but I now see it can be parsed as part of a knowledge framework, like slightly aside from a “hypothesis” or something.

    i.e. when I said religious/agnostic means “I believe god does exist, but can’t prove it”. The “belief” in god wasn’t pointing to a fuzzy knowledge of god or a hypothesis of god. It was pointing to an, uhm, I’m not sure what the word would be, but lets say an experience of god.

    Like when the zen monk asks ‘what is satori” and the master tells the monk “go wash your bowls”, I think the lesson to be had is that satori is an experience that could come to you while washing your dishes or watching a sunset or doing something in the mundane (as in “not supernatural) world but that gives you an experience of the sacred.

    Satori is not a thing, nor is it knowledge about a thing, or knowlege about some idea. It is an experience in the moment, that can come and go like a smile comes to your face and then leaves. Its the difference between you knowing about different famous comedians, versus you having the experience of laughter.

    So, when I say religious/agnostic means “I believe in god”, it was pointing towards the person having an expereince of the sacred in their life.

    Wow. I can see how “belief” really skews the western culture around religion. I never really noticed how the word “belief” tends to point towards fuzzy knowledge, and by doing that, it removes and eliminates the direct experience of the sacred.

  104. Greg: Ah! Yes, I do think you’re right that in Western culture, “belief” refers more to the “discursive” — knowledge fuzzy or otherwise — rather than to the “numinous”, the experience of deity/divinity. In this day and age, I think many more people are exposed to the discursive than to the numinous. I wonder if part of it has to do with the kinds of rituals that most faiths employ. It may also have to do with the privilege that science holds over faith: the discursive is held in much higher esteem today than the numinous.

    A lot of it has to do with this tension between The Outside and The Inside. The discursive — that which can be “objectively represented” — can be verified or falsified. It is a kind of “truth” which can be shared, and as such it’s a kind of communion. On the other hand, the numinous — that which is “subjectively revealed” — tends to be singularly experienced. In group rituals, however, a different kind of communion can be experienced, a revelational communion, and in my experience it’s much more charged with emotion than simple transmission of “knowledge.”

    I’m glad you brought up the Zen parable. Not only does “wash your bowl” point to finding the sacred in everyday experience, it also functions as a particular metaphor, a metaphor that happens to be apt in relation to the OP. In some eastern religions, satori is an experience that comes from a realization of “emptiness.” As such, “washing your bowl” is a metaphor for “cleaning out your skull” — that is, removing all those ideas and selves from the “inside” so as to experience Oneness with the Universe, to “be here now.” Wouldn’t you know, but that reminded me of Athena and John giving something up for Lent. It’s a meditation on desire, I think, and especially the unfulfillment of it. Helps one to become less “attached,” as it were. Maybe it’s not so peculiar, actually, given the mythology of Christianity and its central metaphor of “self sacrifice for the world.” It’s another “way” of describing (and perhaps facilitating) letting go, of stepping into that experience of the sacred.

    I hope it’s becoming clear that when I refer to “radical agnosticism”, I’m referring primarily to blending the “discursive” and the “numinous,” of employing both the agnostic/atheist and agnostic/religious positions you’ve described simultaneously. I think stepping into such a contradictory paradox is more easily accomplished from a position of agnosticism, if not altogether a natural entailment of agnosticism. And I think it’s fair to say that this is “stronger” or less “wishy-washy” than to privilege one line of thinking over the other, because that act of privilege is an implicit declaration that one mode of conception is more “valid” than the other, when really (for an agnostic) such a question of validity is ultimately unknowable, or only knowable in relation to a particular intent or purpose.

  105. janeaire: It may also have to do with the privilege that science holds over faith: the discursive is held in much higher esteem today than the numinous.

    I think it started with Galilleo saying the earth went round the sun, and the Church, rather than let scientists take care of science and have the Church specialize in tending to souls, the Church instead went “all in” and insisted its infallibility applied to a geocentric universe created in six days directly by god about six thousand years ago. Once they did that, it was an all or nothing game. Believe anything those scientists say and be excommunicated (or worse) for heresy. It has been trench warfare ever since, with lives spent fighting over sometimes mere inches of scientific progress being resisted by the church.

    I don’t think every culture has this problem of making science and religion mutually exclusive. But the division in the west seems to have started the moment serious science was discovered.

    I hope it’s becoming clear that when I refer to “radical agnosticism”, I’m referring primarily to blending the “discursive” and the “numinous,”

    It’s clear. I think I like the term “spiritually ignostic”. No religious (supernatural) belief system but finding the sacred in the mundane (natural) world. Part of it is the word geek in me, geeking out. But I think it’s pointing to similar ideas, a big one being that knowledge and sprituality are not mutually exclusive.

  106. Oh, forgot to mention that this: “washing your bowl” is a metaphor for “cleaning out your skull” is something I hadn’t heard before. very cool.

  107. Ewan @93: hm, wasn’t trying to be Randian so much as noting I think you started your approach to religion wrong: it can be a very difficult, divisive issue, and saying “we’ll let the kids decide” or “we’ll just agree to disagree” is, essentially, refusing to deal with it. Particularly when, privately, each of you is thinking the other one is a superstitious fool/is going to burn in hell. (Your wife, after all, chose to marry you knowing that in her view you’re eternally damned, right?) And particularly when children come along, those emotions are expanded geometrically. It’s one thing to roll one’s eyes at the other spouse’s silly foibles, another to see your children repeating them.

    Ruth @71: but you’re talking about actually managing differences in an interfaith relationship. That’s not quite what I meant, which is the failure to address those differences.

  108. Me: I think it started with Galilleo saying the earth went round the sun, and the Church

    You know what, strike that. It occurs to me that the fundamental reason there is such an impenatrable divide in Western culture between the physical and the spiritual, the “discursive” and the “numinous,” is because one of the founding tenets of Christianity is “original sin”, which says, in essence, that the moment we are born, the moment we become physical, that we have fallen from God’s grace, we have been separated from the spiritual, and that the only way to return to God is not by our own actions, deeds, or whatever, but because Christ died on the cross to pay for those sins.

    This division between physical and spiritual is intrinsic to christianity, which makes it part of the water that westerners swim in.

  109. Good for you!

    I like to say that I was raised agnostic, not indoctrinated into any religion and encouraged to ask questions. (Though to be fair I had few questions about religion as a child, those came when I was an adult.) It’s the best way, imho, to raise a child.

  110. My wife and I were both raised as Christians, both lost our faith when we were young and subsequently raised our three daughters without a church. The only consequence to this that I can see is that our girls never get any biblical references. ‘Walk on water,’ ‘loaves and fishes’, ‘in the lions den’ — any phrase that originated in the books of the bible are met with blank stares.

  111. Wow. I can see how “belief” really skews the western culture around religion.

    I see it as having a lot to do with the hegemonic status of Christianity. “Belief” as an essential part of religious experience is … not applicable to many-perhaps-most other frameworks, which are far more praxis-oriented. I am far more comfortable with practice-based religions because I can see them. “Belief” is all about the unverifiable-without-psychic-skills contents of people’s heads, which is neither verifiable by observable means nor necessarily linked to effective action.

    (I don’t, by the way, constrain myself to not doing belief, any more than I constrain myself to not flying by flapping my arms and whistling “I Gotta Crow”. I’m just that bad at it. Growing up in a Christian culture didn’t manage to teach me how to make it go.)

  112. … our girls never get any biblical references. ‘Walk on water,’ ‘loaves and fishes’, ‘in the lions den’ — any phrase that originated in the books of the bible are met with blank stares.

    I’ve got to say- this strikes me as odd. I wasn’t raised with religion either, but certainly knew these phrases as a child and where they came from.

  113. Wow, I never would have guessed that my comment so late in that thread would become the first post of Reader Request Week 2011. I’m humbled! Thank you, John, for taking the time and effort to write such a long explanation of your principles. I feel a bit sorry for not checking the site earlier, but I’ve just been swamped at work this week.

    I also thank all commenters for their insight; it is amazing how civil the discussions on Whatever are.
    John’s education-principles helped me flesh out my own thoughts (though it would be more honest to say that John put into words what I only felt but hadn’t articulated yet).

    I’m currently at a point in my life where I feel that the old labels no longer totally fit. I currently deny the existence of a god that is both omnipotent and omniscient on the basis that there is so much suffering in the world (I became an atheist in seventh grade when my catholic school taught me about the first and second world war). If an omnipotent and omniscient god actually exists, then I refuse to praise and obey him because a being that wants to see thousands of innocent people to die in horrible suffering each day is not worthy to be praised. I could believe in a god outside of space and time, but as he has no influence on our universe and cannot be measured/felt/known, blind belief in such a god seems illogical to me.
    I take great pleasure in the christian rituals the family of my fiancée follow (praying before the meal, semi-regular attendance of service) and take part in them. I will never lead the prayer before the meal, but i fold my hands and remain silent while the others pray. I will not pray during service, but I will stand up when the priests asks the congregation to stand. I really enjoy the sermons; I like the philosophical and ethical questions they pose, though I never agree with the conclusion that God/Jesus is great and is the source of all goodness in the world.
    As an atheist, I am faced with the fact that the world is not perfect and that evil sometimes triumphs over good. I miss the safety of the thought that it’s going according to god’s plan and I miss the good feeling I had when I could put my problems into a prayer.
    I really dislike the way organized religion influences the world. Be it anti-abortion groups, the pope’s ban on condoms, the protests against gay marriage; basically every time someone wants to impose his morality on others make my blood boil. Luckily I live in Germany, where the churches influence on society is limited (although the separation of church and state lags way behind the US). I certainly see all the good religion and organized religion does in the world; both on the deeply personal level (I know many people who have found happiness in religion) and on the society’s level (general charity work, youth groups, etc.).

    I still don’t know how I really feel about baptizing my children. I still don’t know if I would be OK with my children attending a christian kindergarten. It feels a bit like indoctrination, though I don’t feel a strong opposition to it.

    But would it be hypocritical for me to marry in a church to please the fiancée? Is it wrong to baptize a child while being non-christian? I haven’t found the answers to those questions yet.

    John, I thank you again for your views on the topic. Hopefully I will be able to shake your hands and introduce you to my then-wife when you come to Germany later this year.

  114. I have really enjoyed reading all the comments. I wonder if some are “pre-programmed” or “hard-wired” to accept as true religious stories.

    As did Laura (#103), at a very early age (of a somewhat Christian upbringing) I decided that all these stories made little sense, and very soon formed the opinion that they were indeed just a cobbled together mass of tales, revered simply because they were ancient and handed down. At a later age I developed quite a bit of admiration for the salesmanship involved in attempting to create a coherent story and meaning from it all. (Yep, I’m in sales, and I spend a fair bit of time trying to create coherent selling points out of sparse facts!) Best of all was St Paul’s promise of everlasting life after death if you followed his lord – a stroke of pure genius.

    But I do like this story:

    I read about an Eskimo hunter who asked the local missionary priest, ‘If I did not know about God and sin, would I go to hell?’ ‘No,’ said the priest, ‘not if you did not know.’ ‘Then why,’ asked the Eskimo earnestly, ‘did you tell me?’

    – Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, 1974

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