First, the newsweekly The Week has a love-advice column. Who knew? But that’s not what’s important. The reason we’re bringing it up here is because the columnist, one “Starshine Roshell” — if that is her real name — tackles the perrennial question from a reader:
I really love my husband… but he is a devout atheist and I am a devout Christian. [ . . . ] but we are having a hard time deciding how we will bring up our child. What do people do in this situation?
Can an atheist and a religious person have a successful marriage? How do they decide how to raise the kid? If I’m Christian/Hindu/Baha’i/whatever, do I have to celebrate Humanlight? It sounds so dorky!
We see these questions crop up all the time. And too often, we see the question, however it’s asked, answered at best with the presumption that it’s the atheist who has to “reach across the aisle,” with the hopes that he or she will see the light, and at worst with advice to end the relationship because this nonbeliever is just not worthy.
Remember this gem from Steve Harvey, when he said:
You sitting up there talking to a dude and he tells you he’s an atheist, you need to pack it up and go home. You talking to a person who don’t believe in God… what’s his moral barometer? Where’s it at? It’s nowhere.
And a million years ago, I wrote about how Dr. Phil, in a show about building bridges and tolerance, was really telling an aggrieved Christian wife to help her atheist husband find God in his own time.
You get the point.
But Roshell takes a tack I found rather refreshing for a mainstream piece of advice (again, this is about children, not just making the relationship work). Roshell says, essentially, be the best whatever-you-are, because the kids will decide for themselves, anyway:
From the first in-utero elbow punch to the email from college announcing that your child has switched to a theater major, parenting is a humbling, decades-long exercise in acknowledging that you are not in charge of this person. You don’t get to decide when they sleep, what they eat, whom they admire — or what and whether they worship.
Children don’t listen to what you say; they watch what you do. If you and your mister behave as the most gracious Christians and atheists (and Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, Wiccans, and Scientologists) do — by socking it unto others as you would have them sock it you — your kid will follow suit, no matter what spirituality you profess, holidays you celebrate, or hallelujahs you mumble before mealtime.
[ . . . ] What if, instead of worrying, you looked forward to showing your child what you love about your religion, and letting the man you love express why he doesn’t need it? If you’re respectful of each other’s perspectives, your child will learn to think for herself and be considerate of others’ beliefs.
It’s hard to argue with this. I mean, as an evil, angry, militant, arrogant new atheist, I have a small knee-jerk response that says “respectful shmespectful, Christianity is nutso.” But I know that a real relationship and shared child-rearing doesn’t work like that.
I will say that you could make a case that the Christian “side” in this approach has, for lack of a better word, “advantage” in inculcating itself within the kid, if for no other reason than that Christianity, like most religions, asserts its own absolute correctness despite the evidence, whereas atheism is based on the idea that new data can always change one’s mind. The Jesus thing may have more power to shape a young, squishy mind.
But the overall point is sound. (As is Roshell’s use of “sock it to others.”) My wife and I are not identical in religious-spiritual worldviews (she’s no theist, but she’s what you call “open” to a kind of “universal consciousness” and whatnot), and while it’s not the same dichotomy as Christian-atheist, it does create a touch of tension here and there in how we explain certain things to our ever-more-curious kids. But I also think we both understand that the most important thing we can do is to teach by example — be the best, most moral and ethical people we can be, and let that inform where they land theologically. There’s little chance they’ll go wrong.