Danny Postel has a piece up on Alternet about child-rearing and religion, and as someone raised without much religion, I wanted to weigh in. Postel’s wife is a Catholic while he remains an agnostic humanist and they’ve decided to raise their sons in some theological gray area wherein mom explains how Jesus is Lord and dad explains that some people think that whereas others aren’t so sure. Now dad is worried that his sons want to know “why did Jesus invent butterflies if they die after two weeks?” but don’t have his free-thinking instincts.
I’m the child of two committed atheists, so my house lacked the same kind of debate, but when I was young my parents were stuck in a similar predicament. Atheists aren’t generally fans of indoctrination and my mom and dad were no exceptions. Invested in giving me a choice and some early exposure to religious ideas, they decided to tough out a few Sundays at a Unitarian Universalist church in the Arlington, MA area. I know this is the part of the story where we learn that the religious people weren’t delusional and find the community aspect of church compelling and warm even in secular terms. Except that’s not what happened. What I remember from Sunday school is making a bird-feeder out of a pinecone and a robotic saint creatively named “Robo-Saint” out of Legos. After about a month we stopped going because they said the word “god” too many times and my dad couldn’t take it, or so the legend goes.
What I don’t feel, and what Postel worries his children will be later in life, is indoctrinated. Atheism isn’t a belief so much as a set of proposed facts. It’s not that they’re provable – which they aren’t – it’s that some of us look at the evidence and Occam’s razor and decide to live our lives without any gods. It lacks the faith element that religious has which must be taught or received because it can’t be reasoned. The Bible (old or new) is either the word of god or a really fucked up book of stories that teaches few consistent values and even fewer desirable ones and should be kept away from children like Steven King novels. There’s not a lot of middle ground there, not enough that I could see a secular parent teaching his or her child using the Good Book without some serious editorializing. There are a lot of ways to teach ethics or morality without a book that forces parents to come up with explanations for a deity that really doesn’t like a lot of people.
At the same time I see religious parents with a different burden. If you honestly believe a person who doesn’t commit to Jesus Christ will burn in Hell, then you’re not taking risks with your kid. Believer parents who give their kids a real choice either can’t believe that much, have a theology without consequence for heretics or are acting unethically.
Where this gets problematic is exactly Postel’s situation, with one believer and one iffy-leaning-toward-not-believer. His wife faces no dilemma: the children must be made to understand Christ. Postel doesn’t want to claim they shouldn’t learn about Jesus, because for all he’s willing to assert, his wife is right. But if she’s wrong, he doesn’t want his children to be without the ability to question and formulate their own set of beliefs. The problem is he’s stuck between these two fact-situations. If his wife and other Catholics are right, then he would logically hope that his children are convinced and save their eternal souls. On the other hand, he isn’t ready to accept his wife’s beliefs and the idea of having a son who asks why Jesus invented butterflies freaks him out.
The problem isn’t with indoctrination or child-rearing, it’s with agnosticism. Postel seems to lean toward to the non-believer side, but he isn’t ready to tell his sons that Jesus didn’t invent the butterfly, whereas his wife is glad to imply the opposite. Agnosticism that’s unwilling to reject certain religious arguments due to a general desire to avoid arguing such things will lose every time.
Postel is afraid of indoctrinating his kids with atheism, but all parents pass on a substantial part of their ideological framework. In describing the World to a child, one paints a certain picture of what is happening. A bird can be a perfectly crafted creature of God, a miracle of evolution, a fellow creature that deserves our respect or a hunting target. How explanations one and four can coexist I don’t really understand, but religious hunters can explain it to their kids. Religion is just one aspect of a larger way of looking at what exists. Most parents don’t agonize over whether by taking their kids to baseball games, they are indoctrinating them against a stronger inner love for football. With the parents I’ve had at least, you explain why you like what you like or think what you think and let your kid disagree later in life, with some spirited dinner debate grounded by unconditional love. Shaping a child seems to be an inescapable task for parents. By the time I made it to Sunday school at the age of five or six, the idea that there was a god was incompatible with what I already thought. Without ever saying that there wasn’t a god, my parents gave me a way of looking at the World without one.
Most of all, I can’t imagine not working this kind of thing out with one’s partner before raising children. A religious battle between parents with the children as battleground hardly seems healthy for anyone involved. Imagine what happens when the boys are ready for the sex talk…