April 21, 2016

Atheist Mama: But would you REALLY not care if your kid was a believer?

This week, Hemant Mehta and Terry Firma of the Friendly Atheist shared posts about this confession from PostSecret:

My dad says his only failure
Was raising 4 children
Who gave up Christianity.

Mehta approached the issue as comforting the child:

No one has the right to control your thoughts and beliefs, and you shouldn’t feel guilty because your dad is hung up on his superstitions. Even though he probably means well and just wants to be with you all in “Heaven,” you deserve a pat on the back for realizing it’s all a fairy tale. I hope your dad, too, eventually understands that he raised four freethinking adults and that’s nothing to be ashamed about.

It may seem counterintuitive, but this is a serious issue that, in my limited experience, people coming from more conservative religious families struggle with. So much of conservative religious parenting centers on the idea of transmitting your beliefs without any deviation whatsoever that it leaves parents with little recourse. If your child is a Democrat, or a liberal, or a progressive Christian, if they support equal rights for all people, even those with different sexual orientations, or the right to choose whether to continue or terminate a pregnancy, if they are nonbelievers or Catholics...any of these scenarios is a failure of your parenting. You failed to transmit your beliefs to your children.

On the child side-- a side I am intimately acquainted with myself--it can leave you feeling intense guilt. In its own way, you also feel like a failure.

Firma looked at Mehta's post through the lens of a parent:

But to be honest, if any or all of my three kids, who aren’t raised in any faith tradition, joined a Christian sect of their choice, or converted to Islam or Judaism, or became Hare Krishnas or (shudder) Donald Trump supporters Justin Bieber fans Scientologists, damn straight I’d wonder where I’d gone wrong. 
I’d still love them just as much. I wouldn’t cut them off or even pick fights with them. But if what they saw as reality didn’t accord at all with mine, and they became religious despite the benefit of a superstition-free upbringing and the best secular education their mom and I could give them, I’d be racking my brain about why and how they’d gotten off the rails.

His post is titled, "If you raise your kids without religion and they join a faith, wouldn't you think that you failed?"

It's a common question. It's one I've answered multiple times, and I've seen a variety of nonbelieving parents give completely different answers from mine. It's an intensely personal part of parenting.

Often, when I give my answer--it's a resounding no, for the record--people doubt it. After all, we all want our children to share our values and outlooks. It's natural. I wanted kids with my spouse's eyes, and my love of reading. It's a mixed bag when you're imagining how your offspring will be in the distant future, and I don't think I'm off base to say that it's something pretty much every parent will think about. Our entire goal is to raise adults. It's only natural that we'll think about it often.

However, I'm completely comfortable with my answer. It really comes down to one principle, the foundational principle of my current parenting: children are people.

I know, it's totally revolutionary. This isn't aimed at Firma, either--I have no doubt he feels the same as I do. But as a first generation nonbeliever, the idea that my children are people is completely revolutionary for me. They are not an extension of me. They are not little lumps of clay that I am going to mold. It's much closer, in my opinion, to planting wildflower. I've picked a place. I hope it's a good place. I'm going to feed them and water them. In the end, though, they're going to grow the way that they will, and I can't take that personally. I can't take it as an indictment of my parenting.

There are instances that would worry me for their safety and wellbeing. If they join a cult, I'll worry. If they wind up in an intensely conservative denomination of a faith, I'll worry. As a parent, I've come to terms with the fact that worrying is a fairly common state of existence. But it's not a failure on my part, because they are their own people, and these decisions are theirs to make.

I never had that chance as child. I was expected to conform to the faith of my parents and grandparents and great-grandparents. There was no choice involved. Preserving that choice for my children is an intense motivator for me as a parent. However they choose to exercise that choice, I'll feel like I've succeeded just because they have the freedom.

So what would make me feel like a failure as a parent?

If my children aren't empathetic to other beings, I'll feel like a failure. If they don't consider and weigh evidence when making decisions, I'll feel like a failure. If they aren't passionate lifelong learners, if they lose their sense of wonder or curiosity, I'll feel like a failure. These are the issues that I can't separate, personally. I can't compartmentalize them.

And that list? That list will look different for everyone.

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