When Jim Mulholland was a still a pastor, long before he drifted towards atheism, he relished the chance to teach young children morality. Now that he’s no longer a believer, but still very much a dad, this is what Christians sometimes ask him: “But what about your daughter, Ella?”
Mulholland has the always-interesting perspective of someone who was on the inside, but whose analytical powers are in fact greater on the outside. He wrote a great article about being a non-believer father:
When I was teaching religious doctrine to children, I never thought of it as indoctrination. As a religious person, I had the responsibility of raising them in the faith. While orthodox theology allowed for an age of accountability before which children weren’t morally responsible, every Christian parent was overjoyed when their son or daughter accepted Christ. The pressure was off. Their eternal destiny was assured.
Back then, if someone had suggested children weren’t developmentally capable of making an informed decision about religious belief, I would have missed the point. You indoctrinated children when they were most malleable, assuring their adherence to your religion’s beliefs and practices, because you loved them. This indoctrination, though inappropriate from a non-religious perspective, was the religious equivalent of a vaccination. You were protecting your children from ideas and experiences that might destroy them, from choices and actions that might damn them to hell. To do otherwise was irresponsible.
Mulholland recalls one distraught mother who challenged him when he said he didn’t believe in hell. She needed the concept of hell as a tool to raise a moral child, she told him.
This woman was not a negligent, abusive parent. Indeed, within her religious framework, she was an exemplary mother. Though she worried about hell, her primary concern was raising a moral child.
People very much like her have doubted Mulholland’s decision to raise his now-six-year-old daughter without religion, concerned that the ex-pastor is
… walking a tightrope across Niagara Falls with my daughter sitting on my shoulders. I risk far more than my own damnation. When I suggest religious belief is something Ella can choose — if she so wills — once she is an adult, they worry about how she’ll develop as a moral person.
I’d have no problem telling these people to please mind their own goddamn beeswax, but Mulholland understands them better — and treats them more gently — than I probably could.
Again, I try to remember my indoctrination. I was taught that without religious training, moral development was problematic, if not impossible. This prejudice was difficult for me to abandon. Since my moral training happened within a religious context, it was hard to imagine raising children without that undergirding. …
This anxiety may explain why many parents, though they no longer have much interest in religion, often return to their childhood religious communities when they become parents. They don’t know where else to go.
Mulholland figured out soon enough that religion and morality are hardly one and the same.
Indeed, there is growing evidence that external coercion inhibits, rather than encourages, the creation of morally reflective and responsible adults. Morality develops as children learn to understand choices and consequences, as they find goodness to be its own reward. This morality is taught best not by institutions, but by the people children respect the most — their parents. Our task as parents is not insuring their indoctrination, but helping them to reflect on the choices and decisions we face every day. If we do this well, they will learn how to make good decisions.
This shift in approach can be so freeing for a parent. We don’t have to have all the answers. We don’t have to protect our children from alternate ideas. Allowing them to explore, create, reflect, make mistakes and ultimately determine their own path isn’t irresponsible. It is an act of love and respect. When they ask tough questions, telling them we don’t know and asking their opinion allows them to embrace a world where certainty is no longer the highest value.
Ella is lucky that way. She no longer gets told that she was born in sin, and that only swearing life-long fealty to a long-dead carpenter’s son can save her from damnation and an eternity of unimaginable pain.
What does Mulholland tell her instead?
I’ll tell Ella we’re all born with a moral compass, or at least with that capacity. I’ll teach the moral maxims that cross cultural and religious boundaries. I’ll read her the works of Dr. Seuss, Shel Silverstein and Mo Willems. They are wise and — unlike most religious writings — age appropriate. … I’ll celebrate her freedom to become an autonomous person, influenced and not indoctrinated by her mother and me. And, if some day, Ella finds religion to meet her needs and answer her questions, I will know this too is her choice.
I am not anxious about her moral development. I am excited to see what Ella becomes, freed of my encumbrances. The goal of good parenting is not to make our children into imitations of ourselves. It is to create the space for them to exceed us in knowledge, in graciousness and in authenticity.
I’m the father of two (soon to be three) girls. Right down to the children’s books Mulholland mentions, my parenting choices are almost a mirror of his, although I would have struggled to express them so gracefully.
Ella will be fine, maybe even outstanding, and I hope the same is true for my kids.
In any case, I’d rather see a world full of people who regard being good as its own reward, than one in which goodness is proffered as ransom for one’s soul, protection money for the Almighty.