Reader Request Week 2011 #1: Children and Faith
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.