Another New Year

First, I wish everyone health, happiness, and peace in the New Year. Second, I would love to hear how you and your families are doing.

Things are good for my family and me. I’ve always been careful with what I write about my kids, recognizing that readers are not just fellow atheists, but also frenemies, acquaintances, and strangers. But my kids are out of high school now, so I don’t worry about a backlash or about some religious kook trying to convert them. They don’t face the same pressures that they once did attending public school in Texas. In fact, it seems as if atheism is much more acceptable now, although perhaps we just have a new enemy in Isis, so those who are atheists or non-religious are not a threat. I’d be curious to know if others are still having issues in the school or on the playground.

My kids are doing well. I keep my fingers crossed that both boys will continue on their respective paths and not get into trouble or derailed in any way. I try not to read the news and see all the terrible things that can happen – – or the world we will leave our children.

At work, I rarely hear talk about religion or church. Occasionally I hear my coworkers say they feel “blessed”, which, to me, simply means they are thankful or grateful. My neighbors don’t talk about their church or ask which one I attend. Faith seems to be waning.

I don’t feel as if my family or I missed out on anything by not having faith. Being an atheist brings a tremendous amount of freedom. I’m not worried if god approves. I decide what’s right and wrong. Yes, that’s subjective and elastic, but so are the morals of “god” and his believers.

I don’t care what others think of me, which is pretty damn liberating. How many people worry that they’ll say or do the wrong thing and someone—god or a friend–will judge or dislike them? Those are shackles we put on ourselves. If there’s one thing I learned from being atheist, it’s that it just doesn’t matter what others think. I don’t need approval – from anyone. And when I screw up, I can forgive myself.

There’s no sense of betrayal and there’s no reason to rage against the universe. There’s no god to play favorites, there’s no puppet master deciding who gets rescued and who doesn’t. Shit happens and that’s just all there is to it. When people are harmful, it’s up to us to deliver justice and hold others accountable. I work hard and try my best; sometimes things work out, sometimes they don’t.

On the other hand, as an atheist, I understand that there are certain obligations that come with being human and with the awareness that all we have is each other. I’m obligated to be courteous to my fellow man, even to those I don’t like. It doesn’t mean I must have relationships with those folks, but when I’m cruel or unkind, I only show who I am, not who they are. Being kind doesn’t mean that I approve of someone’s actions or that I like who they are, it only means I extend the civility of a sentient being.

These are the things I hoped I’ve passed onto my kids. As they grow older, I they’ll fold their parental influence into the people they become. I hope I will continue to see kids who are not afraid to live without god, who can define who they are and yet be good, content citizens of the world.  I’m pretty sure the next few decades will bring new generations that have shed religion.

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22 responses to “Another New Year

  1. Fine thoughts, well-expressed.
    Parents seem to worry about the “world they will leave their children.” Parents, however, are not in charge of the world. The world, such as it is in this time of fascism in the US and spreading elsewhere, is not amenable to our efforts to shape it.
    Children will have make their own ways, and should not hold their parents accountable for the ways of the world they will inherit. In the same way, though, children, like all humans, are products of the larger world. Whatever good and beneficent structure you may have provided your children as an atheist parent, the greater world will impose far greater demands upon their social abilities.

    • Hi Notabilia – I do believe we are responsible for the world we leave our kids. But we’re not all on the same page. Shame on Trump and his supporters for building hostility, loosening environmental regulations, and promoting racism. (To start….)

  2. Great post, as usual.

    As far as whether religion still influences or impacts in the public sphere, I think it really depends a lot on where you live and what circles you travel in. When we lived in Southern California (or more specifically, Orange County), the evangelical Christian influence was everywhere, it seemed. It was one of the things I wanted to get away from when we moved to the PNW. There are pockets of the Christian right up here, but so far I don’t feel at all inundated by Christianity or any religion. It seems to be much more of a “live and let live” philosophy. But all over social media, I still see my friends and acquaintances from SoCal posting about Jesus. Since my kids aren’t currently attending public school, I have no idea what the religious climate is like in public schools up here.

    Happy New Year to you, Debbie!

    • Hi Lisa! Happy New Year to you, too! I’m pleasantly surprised to here that about the PNW. ‘Live and let live’ and ‘do unto others’ are probably the only two “laws” we really need to live in a peaceful world. So simple, yet so difficult for humanity….

  3. Hi! Thank you for crayon this Blog!! I truly appreciate your perspective and articulate insight. It is so great to be able to read such thought provoking objectives and a viewpoint that confidently and clearly outlines a positive world without religion. I am currently struggling with how to help ease my children’s fears about the non existence of heaven. My sons have both expressed concerns about dying without anything to come. I tell them that they won’t know they are dead and the only thing they can do is make every moment on this earth count and enjoy it. This seemed to passify my eldest son for now (albeit wearily), but my youngest who is 6 retorted with… “I like God and I’m coming back as a bird.” I’ve decided to let him think this for now since it seems to comfort him. He recently said to me while we were having a one on one chat… “Mummy… I know why people like to believe in God… because it feels less lonely.” I was a little surprised that my 6 year old could contemplate such a thought and be able to share it with me like that. My husband who is not a vocal atheist, but rather indifferent to the idea of religion, doesn’t think it’s a big deal, but I worry about my kids feeling despair and that they are alone. I recall in my hardest moments as a child when the world felt like it would surely end, due to parents continuous arguing or kids being cruel at school to name two, the idea of God and the ability to ask a higher power for help was comforting. My struggle is trying to give my boys that sense of comfort and inner peace while maintaining a non religious environment in which to grow and live. If you have any previous blogs about this idea or any thoughts I would love to read or hear them. Thanks and wishing you a bright and happy 2017!

    • Hi Geneve – You’re not alone. This is the most difficult part of being atheist and of raising kids without god – how to help them allay their fears about dying. I, too, remember that sense of existential dread when I realized I was mortal. Yes, it was scary. Whether you believe in god or not, facing that fact that you’ll one day die is tough at any age. As a parent, we don’t want to see our kids suffer through those fears. Ultimately, it’s not death that causes us pain, but the fear of death.

      For now, if believing brings your kids peace and they feel strongly about their views, I would just let them be. But, personally, I would not confirm, support or build on their beliefs. I would not lie; I would continue to tell them what we know about religion and the afterlife. As your boys grow older and are able to cope, they will most likely ask questions again about dying, and you’ll be able to better discuss with them.

  4. I’ve always thought that as parents we must do the best we can for our kids, teaching them right from wrong, how to think for themselves, and trying to set a good example for them. Around age 18 or so they head off to college or wherever, at which point we just have to trust that most of the lessons stick. And usually they do.

    I bet your kids will do great! Have a wonderful new year.

  5. Another simply outstanding piece, full of powerful insights and warming thoughts of what could – and should – be! Thank you as always, and the snowflakes in your header are appreciated as well! ; – ) Through the past six years I had a close association with the area school district (of nearly 12,000 kids) in a well-financed, affluent and diverse community. I also sit on the board of directors for a 680 business member Chamber of Commerce. I am very happy – proud, actually – to report over that recent past there have been no major incidents of non-believers (involving either children or business owners) being singled out, chastised, or in any way made to feel different. The one exception came from a sole, persistent tea-party affiliated School Board member who constantly insisted the Spring Break be called “Easter Break” and other similar points in a series of attempts to circumvent Constitutional intent. By 8 to 1 votes that person was defeated in complaint after complaint. And now the residents have demonstrated the sense to eliminate anyone with right-wing, tea party leanings from the Board. The district’s $230 million annual budget is now safe from the scourge of internal proposals to advance school vouchers and other attempts to misdirect taxpayer money for religious purposes. Statewide, however, in Pennsylvania there continues to be a series of promotions for such behavior.

    To your larger, and more important outreach regarding ways in which to provide comfort and peace for younger family members or friends, I do have one suggestion. In the United States, at least, the melting pot of commercialization and fashion has blended most every culture into being American-style citizens first and ethnic/religious citizens second. Television and the Internet have – overall – played a significant positive role in that process, taking power and influence away from those institutions which had been so fond of wielding power in the past … especially religious groups.

    One way to prove this point is to have kids seek out and invite similar-aged kids who profess to be part of a range of religions, from Indian/Hindu to Christian to Muslim to Jew. It may seem counterintuitive, but by being exposed to other kids who ‘are religious’ your children may find that those other kids have their own beliefs that don’t align with traditional dogma … and by dispensing with that, the idea that no belief at all is also acceptable and well tolerated. You may have to pick-and-choose your moments, and again, I wouldn’t suggest that path living in Indonesia or Vatican City. But in the U.S. most people don’t align with the forced belief systems of the past. Just my own observation but there are a lot of signs to that effect. Take care, and have a safe and prosperous New Year 2017 to all!

    • Great points, Rob. Also, for those of us who are able to seek positions of influence in local governments, that’s probably the best way to ensure our schools and cities make secular choices. (BTW, the snowflakes appear on WordPress blogs every holiday season!) Happy New Year to you, too!

  6. Great piece! This was the first article I clicked on when searching for how to raise kids as ‘free-thinkers’ – a term widely used in Singapore for those who don’t follow a specific religion. My daughter has just started secondary school at a Catholic girls school. It’s not that religious focussed and we chose it because it has some great teachers and reputation. Singapore was once a British colony and there are still many church schools. Anyway, my daughter messaged me today because a class mate told her that free thinkers (no matter how good they are) are all destined to a pretty grim eternity in hell. She said she was so scared that she was shaking in class. Her biggest fear was not for herself but for our family because we don’t follow any religion. And while I’m not going to get her to immediately read Christopher Hitchens’ God Is Not Great, I do want to allay her fears that bad things will happen to our family if we don’t believe in a god. I think the best place to start is the part where you said ‘understand that there are certain obligations that come with being human and with the awareness that all we have is each other’ – I would love for her to understand the beauty of this statement.

    • Hi Robert – Thanks for sharing. It’s terrible when adults lay guilt on kids. You and I know that those adults do it out of their own fear and ignorance, but kids don’t understand. I hope your daughter will be reassured by your talks with her. My younger son went through something similar–he was terrified of the “devil.” It gets easier as they grow up!

  7. I found your site after my wife texted me today that my son told our religious neighbor’s son that he did not believe there was a god. His mom asked incredulously if we were teaching him this at home!? Awkward! But, should it be? Shouldn’t we be asking her the same question?? We didn’t ever tell him “there is no god” but we do share our opinions when he asks about what other kids believe, and while we would not lie, we answer carefully as we can to avoid him having a difficult time socially. Too late! lol

    • Of course I think you’re spot on. There are a lot of parents like us. And you’re right – shouldn’t we be asking, you’re teaching *that* at home?

  8. I would be interested to hear a little more detail about your value system. My question is, how do you determine the boundaries of your value system, and what happens when they come into conflict with someone else’s? “Do unto others” may seem like a simple solution- which happens to be the golden rule from Christianity- but what if both parties are doing what they believe to be right- by what authority do you arbitrate? For a believer, God’s values are not arbitrary by definition, and apply to everyone. Your values only apply to you. By what authority do you make a child’s conscience dictate good behavior? If God is not watching, the child feels no repercussions if not caught- so if he is his own highest authority, how do you develop a good conscience? What values would you teach? Not to steal? To honor your father and mother? Where do these come from aside from the religious tradition? I am not religious, not that it matters, but I think it important to recognize the limits of your argument. Being atheist may give you a perceived freedom, but it can also condemn you to that freedom, in the words of Sartre. What do you lean on if the Universe takes what you most value? What gets you through the inexplicable crises?

    • As parents who have chosen not to raise our children with the idea of God we have thought long and hard repeatedly how to encourage positive behavior regardless. Certainly telling children there’s a a man in the sky that’s going to judge them if they are bad is an easier approach to parenting, it’s not the message we were comfortable continuing. What we do in our family is teach our children about internal happiness and kindness. I teach them that being kind and good feels good. It’s the right thing to do. I teach them that life is short and the best way to create a happy life that’s worthwhile is to be kind and good and help the people around you. I teach them that crime and hurtful behavior is fleeting and only brings more pain and hurt. We are a family that offers our children unconditional love and patience and have created our own moral code. We lead by example because in the end our children are a mirror of us. We are honest with them about what some bad choices could bring. We talk about drugs and jail and how awful those things are and how they ruin lives and bring nothing but regret. We are real with our kids. We talk with our children about charity and even help out at local community and charitable initiatives. We often talk about some of the 10 commandments and how they are good rules to follow. Because it makes life more enjoyable. We teach them about the butterfly effect in that kindness breeds kindness and good deeds will come back to them in other ways. We teach them to lean on us and each other in times of stress and sadness. We teach our children to hold themselves accountable for their life and success. We tell them no one has the ability or power to make their lives better or worse. It’s all up to them to do the things that will create a wonderful life. They are in charge of their destiny and happiness. In the end it’s teaching our children about love.

  9. I have no doubt your good people, and teach your kids well. But I can envision scenarios where teaching kids the right thing to do is be kind and good because it feels good can run them into problems in life. Sometimes what feels good is not the best thing to do. Sometimes being kind and good is not what feels the best to people. If there’s no authority beyond the heart, there are many dangers in what can feel good. And there will be times kids cannot lean on parents. There will be times what is “good” will not be clear because not every scenario is addressed in making your own moral code and there’s no authority to turn to. There will be times when their own moral code conflicts with someone else’s, and again there’s no objective arbitration point. I know it’s easy to dismiss “the man in the sky” with cartoonish imagery, but faith has scene people through the worst times humanity has faced.

    • Hi Ben, I see what you are asking but the quandary you are presenting is precisely what many of us don’t subscribe to. The notion that without some sort of faith (fear?) our children won’t know how to behave when we are not around to guide them is non-sense. And, yes, people have found faith to be useful for surviving catastrophic times in history or even in their personal life, and sure whatever works, but I personally have not found faith to be useful when I myself have been through the wringer.

      I teach my children what I try to do myself: live as an example for others. Is this not the crux of most religions? I ask myself “What if everyone did that? Do I want to live in that world?” You can call it a moral barometer that’s calibrated based on proprietary beliefs derived from contemplating the affect of my behavior. I constantly make adjustments and routinely ask myself what the best course of action would be because, well, I’ll admit it’s a challenge sometimes but I personally would never want to filter all my actions through hard-and-fast rules! I teach my children to follow their barometer and my reinforcement of good behavior and admonishment of bad behavior is what I expect will ingrain self-regulation when I am not around to guide them.

      Now, since you did not state it directly, if you are advocating for using belief in a god to teach our children right from wrong, then I can’t agree there because I am an atheist (actually, I’m an “anti-theist” but my barometer says “now, play nice!” :)) But, if you are stating that regardless if you believe or not, that faith is a useful tool to keep kids inline, then to me that’s the same thing as using Santa Claus to keep kids in check for the reward they get for doing so. However, like most all adults (even some young children) we stop believing in Santa Claus because he’s simply not real. But the same does not always apply to the belief in god. Sorry, but that’s not going to change and teaching my children otherwise would be, in my mind, a lie. Now, respect for others that DO believe? Absolutely! They have been taught to respect other’s beliefs but also that it HAS to be a two-way street.

      I would also argue that many social mores were forged long ago as mankind developed a need to work together to survive and well before organized religion formally ascribed them. To me they seem “natural” though it appears some need enforcement to adhere to them and that’s precisely where the divide exists.

      • Thank you Craig! Perfectly put and very inspiring. I will be sharing this discussion and some of the comments articulated so well with my children tonight. All the best!

        • Wow. I had started to answer Ben before work yesterday; I’m glad I didn’t. This was a great discussion. Geneve and Craig said wrote so eloquently – we teach our kids morals by being kind to each other, by teaching empathy, and by “practicing what we preach.”

          I just want to add a couple of comments. “How do you determine the boundaries of your value system, and what happens when they come into conflict with someone else’s?” First, let’s clarify. Whether you’re a believer in God or an atheist, you have to determine the “boundaries of your value system.” For instance, “God’s laws” state that you cannot take a life. But can you take a life in capital punishment? What if your family’s well-being is in danger in an armed robbery? What if you help a terminally ill patient take end his life? Aren’t you continuously re-evaluating your value system? If not, you should be.

          What happens when your values come into conflict with someone else’s? I’ll bet that your values are in constant conflict with those folks who share a home with you and/or who sit in the same pew with you. You don’t believe in abortion? What if your daughter or wife were raped by a member of ISIS? If your daughter wants to abort the fetus, and you do not, do you decide for her? Your values, large and small, come in conflict with other Christians every day.

          One flaw in theists’ reasoning is this: “For a believer, God’s values are not arbitrary…” So if god is the rule-maker, on what authority does he base his rules? Think about it. None? You mean god pulled his values out of thin air, he based his values on no one and nothing? Well, then, he arbitrarily made up his rules. I want to add that this god that Christians believe in is not even human. Never was. Never will be. Even if he *were* real, he never lived in a human form with other mammals. Do you still want to follow “god’s values”?

          If all Christians believe in the same, unyielding value system that is set in stone and that applies to all believers, then theists would get along just fabulously and we would have no need for the court system. (Or for war. Or for any conflict.) Yet you’ll find plenty of Christians battling each other in court over values, which means that your values, whether you are Christian or otherwise, are indeed uniquely yours – they apply only to you.

          Finally, we all have “perceived freedom.” We all have limitations we’re not even aware of. We all struggle through the next “inexplicable crises.” Assigning meaning of a crises to an absent deity who has no answers and who does not play fair just doesn’t make sense to many of us.

  10. You’re right. It’s true that without a higher power to answer to or discipline us the responsibility for living a good life that serves others is harder to control and falls on us mortal’s shoulders. That said, I know too many people that are religious, but are selfish humans that break the lawn and do unfavorable things despite God’s moral code because they Believe their “sins” will be forgiven as long as they “believe”. I find this extremely dangerous and even scarier than teaching my children that they have to live with themselves after poor choices are made and there’s no out. They are accountable for the good and the bad and must live with their choices. As a means of providing comfort we give them alternatives to finding inner peace and refuge from bad situations and stress through meditation and daily self reflection. We teach them how to be still and breathe and more importantly how to forgive themselves and the people around them. My son’s grade 4 teacher teaches yoga and meditation to his students 3 hours a week and it has been an incredible tool in helping gym son find calm and learn how to remove the outside stress and calm himself. The truth is you don’t need God to be happy. That’s just what you have been raised to believe. And that’s okay for you. There are other ways to be happy, fulfilled, upstanding citizens of the world.

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