September 12, 2014

A Conversation with my Mother: Or, how I will never handle my children's belief or nonbelief



Recently, my To Do List has looked something like this:

  • Fold laundry
  • Do dishes
  • Finish The Second Sex
  • Tell Mom I'm an atheist

One of those things kept getting put off. Okay, two of them, but I really hate laundry, so you'll have to forgive me.

But that last one blew up in my face a bit this weekend. What began as my mother trying to tell me how she finds God to be real quickly devolved into a painful conversation that may have set our relationship back...god only knows how far, at least on my end.

I was so shocked by it, I didn't even get a chance to truly respond or have the dialogue that I had hoped to have. That's what procrastination gets you, I suppose.

But alas, here I am, typing up my belated thoughts in a blogpost.

*sighs*

This, my friends, is a conversation with my mother, what she said and what I wish my response had been.

I just hope I didn't raise you wrong.


I was raised to be honest, kind, compassionate, tenacious, inquisitive and strong. I was raised to ask questions and seek answers. I was raised to never stop learning...ever. I was raised to continue to grow, no matter what, and not to take the easy way, but to persevere and overcome.

I do not require religion for these traits. I do not require belief for these traits.

I believe--as I was raised to-that people are special. That they are intrinsically worthy of respect. "Love thy neighbor" was an impressive commandment, and the example of Christ was one who communed with sinners and outcasts yet loved them all the same.

These are not teaching that I have left behind. Not believing in God doesn't mean that I relinquish my belief in the value of people, a valuable lesson from my upbringing.

This belief is the cornerstone of humanism. It is the foundation of my morality. Personally, I consider it the only path to objective morality. Mutual respect is what moral decisions thrive on.

Religion doesn't determine whether one was raised well, and neither does adhering to it when one is older. The strength of one's character does.

Hitler was raised with religion. Jeffrey Dahmer was raised with religion. The terrorists behind the 9/11 attacks were raised with religion.

Jack Schapps, a pastor who repeatedly molested a teenage girl who was coming to him for counseling because she had been sexually abused, was raised with religion.

Churches that supported slavery were full of those raised with religion. Today's churches that support discriminating against LGBT+ individuals are full of those raised with religion.

There are people raised with religion who commit unspeakable crimes.

And then there are those without religion--or with a vastly liberal view of it--who stand up for equality.

Thomas Jefferson penned the Declaration of Independence from a deist's point of view. John Adams, our second president, was a theistic rationalist who associated with some of the most notorious atheists of his day. Abraham Lincoln was consistently accused of being an atheist, following in the footsteps of an unlikely Benjamin Franklin, who, while accused of being an atheist, identified himself as a deist.

Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony were agnostics. Katherine Hepburn was too. Sarah Bernhardt, when asked if she prayed, responded proudly, "Never. I'm an atheist."

Mark Twain was an agnostic advocating social change. Percy Bysshe Shelley, John Keats, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Marian Evans, Emily Dickinson and Thomas Hardy were all either agnostics or atheists.

Thomas Edison and Albert Einstein--both nonbelievers.

These people contributed positively to our society in a myriad of ways, and yet, none of them believed strongly in the notion of God.

One could assume that they were all raised right. And  yet, belief is not one of the signs of that rearing.

I'd hate to see my grandchildren miss out on the opportunities we gave you growing up.


I am curious as to what my children are missing out on.

The opportunity to be told that they are broken, flawed, weak? The opportunity tot be told that it is wrong to question or doubt? The idea that they should be punished for the sins of an ancestor who lived thousands of generations ago?

Are they missing out on a sense of community? We have a local humanist group for that.

What they gain is a belief in the power of reason and the wonder of humanity. They gain the freedom to explore and question the world around them without trying to fit it into a predetermined worldview.

They gain a level of respect for their parents instead of an expectation of blind obedience to authority.

This is the legacy that being raised without religion gives them.

They will still learn about it. Religious literacy is crucial to understanding our world. When they are able, they can formulate their own beliefs.

They will not, however, be indoctrinated. They will not be told that a loving god will send them to hell for not believing, or that being gay is a sin, or that women are inferior. They will not be taught that they are dirty, shameful, or corrupted. These are not my family's values, and I will not pass them on to my children.

These beliefs are not healthy, and we will not support them.

This isn't denying our kids opportunities. It's simply raising them in accordance with our values. And those values are not Christian, although I think you would be surprised at the overlap.

I know what you believe.


You do not. You never asked. You assumed.

But allow me to clarify for the record: I am an atheist and a humanist.

Atheist refers to what I do not believe. I do not believe in a god or gods or deities of any kind. I do not believe in an afterlife.

I am an agnostic atheist. This means I acknowledge that in a world of infinite possibilities, I can never say with a hundred percent certainty that there is not, never has been, and never will be a god. But lacking solid evidence of the divine phenomena, I do not believe it is likely.

My humanist label refers to what I do believe: that humans are flawed but capable of good. That we can make moral decisions for ourselves through the use of reason. That we are intrinsically worthy of respect as living beings.

How do I look at death? Simple. We have not existed before in this life, and we will become nonexistent again. But we go on in those we love and were loved by and this is our immortality.

Don't get so involved in your own intellect that you miss out on faith.


I don't really know how to respond to this one, but I think I was told not to be too smart for religion.

To which I can only ask: If a god requires me to be less smart in order to believe...is it really worth worshipping?

When I was teenager, I was sometimes persuaded to "dumb myself down" to attract male attention, with the misbelief that boys didn't like smart girls. As I grew and matured, I realized that anyone that couldn't respect my full intellect wasn't worth my time. If a deity expects the same of me, I'm afraid it will be met with the same reaction.

The flipside of this is the implication that I believe believers are of some lower intellect. I do not, and it's unfair (and insulting) to imply that I do.

It's a tie to our family's past.


There are many, many, many parts of our shared identity that connect us to our family past.

Religion is one, and it is a beautiful and truly rich part of the tapestry of our family--but it is only one part. Leaving religion doesn't mean I am losing my link to our past. Our shared religious history was not, in fact, even anywhere near the top of my list of links that made me feel connected to our family.

For me, religion was always a given. It wasn't unique or special. Instead, there are so many other parts of our past that make me feel connected.

Our love of music, the mountains, and the outdoors. Our sarcastic wit. The tendency we have to be unable to resist water--whether jumping in or dumping on someone. Our story-telling ability.

All of these are also thread that connect us, and they are still alive and well for me.

What I Wanted To Say More Than Anything

It's okay for us to believe different things, and my beliefs--at nearly 30!--are not a reflection on your parenting.

I ask for respect, just as I give it to you.

And I love you, anyway, no matter what.

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