Today I watched this video. It is a talk at a Secular Student Alliance conference by high school student Jessica Ahlquist. It’s weird, if I had watched this video even five or ten years ago, I would have looked at her and seen myself; I would have seen Jessica on the level of a peer. Today, I look at her and see my daughter; I see Jessica as part of a younger generation. And so, watching Jessica, I thought of my daughter and my parenting. Jessica has reminded me that even though I no longer share my parents’ religious beliefs, I can still place expectations on my daughter the way my parents did on me.
First, some background on the video (and actually, if you just read this you don’t have to actually watch the video and you’ll still get my point). Jessica is an atheist, and she is suing her public school to remove a prayer banner from its auditorium. She first petitioned to have the banner removed and explained that it violates the separation of church and state and her school refused to budge and told her she would have to sue. The law is on Jessica’s side, and she will win the suit. Jessica explains that she is now mocked, threatened, and harassed at her high school by openly Christian students because of her atheism. Even the teachers are sometimes complicit. And Jessica lives in Rhode Island, not Georgia or Alabama.
When I heard this story, I had two very different reactions to it.
First, as I listened to Jessica talk about the hatred she has faced at school for simply coming out as an atheist, I cried tears for my daughter. Growing up in an atheist family, I know that Sally will be teased and mocked in school. She will be reviled, perhaps even by teachers. The intensity of the persecution she will face will vary depending on where we live, of course, but it will never completely disappear. She will be growing up as a child of atheists in a pervasively Christian culture. She will be hated, she will be misunderstood, she will be laughed at. If you think I’m exaggerating, remember that Jessica Ahlquist lives in Rhode Island, not Alabama.
There is a part of me that wants more than anything for my daughter to be able to lead a “normal” life, and I know that she won’t truly be able to do that in this country as a child of atheist parents. Sometimes I feel like finding a liberal Christian church to attend and putting on a Christian hat, just so that she can have a normal life and childhood. But I can’t do that. I can’t lie about what I believe. There is nothing wrong with not believing in a God. I don’t want to teach my daughter that beliefs are something to be hidden and ashamed of.
My second reaction is very different. I listen to Jessica’s courage and I find myself hoping that Sally will be just like her. I find myself hoping that Sally will start a Secular Alliance at her high school, that she will stand up for disbelief, that she might even be involved in a lawsuit to remove a religious symbol from her school, or to remove the words “under God” from the Pledge of Allegiance. And then I realize what I am doing. I am doing what my parents did, and that I must not do. I must not live through my daughter or map her life out for her. I must not put expectations on her or decide her beliefs for her.
I don’t like the term “Christian child” or “Muslim child,” because I do not think children ought to be allowed to decide their religions for themselves. I prefer to say “child of Christian parents” or “child of Muslim parents,” and that is why in the beginning of this post I spoke of Sally “growing up as a child of atheist parents,” not “growing up as an atheist.”
I intend to teach Sally to be a critical thinker and to think for herself, and then let her choose her own beliefs. Will I be happy if Sally decides she is an atheist and starts a Secular Alliance club at her high school? You bet! But I need to make sure that I am not disappointed if she would rather be the band kid and try out her best friend’s church. It’s not my job to tell Sally who she’s supposed to be. It’s my job to give her the tools to decide for herself who she wants to be.
I won’t hide my beliefs to make her life more “normal,” but I also won’t push those beliefs on her.