Do I want my siblings to be atheists?

Someone asked me a while back whether my goal is for my siblings to become atheists. I was completely taken aback because I had never even thought about it like that. The answer is no, that’s not my goal, and it never has been. But the question made me think. What is my goal for my siblings? Why don’t I feel a driving desire to deconvert them into atheism?

There is something similar involved when I think of my children. I’ve had conservative Christians tell me “just wait until one of your kids to decide to be a Christian, and then you’ll know how your parents felt and you’ll almost certainly react similarly.” The thing is, this isn’t true. My goal isn’t for my children to be atheists. I plan to let them form their own beliefs. Rather, my goal is that they be caring, compassionate, accepting, confident, independent thinkers who believe in equality and the value of humanity and are conscious of the importance of social justice.

I have good friends who are Christians and I don’t feel the need to deconvert them either, because they are already all of the things I listed above. I disagree with a few of them on some things – universal health care, for example – and those are the things I argue with them about. Similarly, if I found a friend didn’t believe in LGBTQ rights, or thought abortion should be banned, or was in favor of the death penalty, those are all things I would feel the need to argue about, and those are the moments when I would try to change a friend’s mind.

I’ve been trying to think of the reasons for this. For one thing, there are both caring, loving, and accepting people and hateful, bigoted people in every religious tradition and outside of religion. My desire, then, is not for people to hold or not hold specific beliefs about the supernatural but rather for them to be caring, loving, and accepting people regardless of what they believe. For another thing, I’m tired of proselytizing. I spent too many years believing it was my role in life to make others believe what I did. I feel no need to repeat that. I think in some sense I became so jaded by my parents and religious community trying to impress their religious beliefs on me no matter what it took that I want to stay as far away from repeating that as possible.

I don’t want to be the friend who is always trying to prove you wrong or lecture you about the inadequacy of your beliefs; I want to be the friend you can count on for love, acceptance, support, and a shoulder to cry on.

Now of course, none of this means that I am afraid to state what I do and don’t believe or why. If religion does come up in a conversation, with a Christian or Jewish friend for instance, I make it clear where I stand and why. I plan to do the same with my children, and with my siblings if they ask. I am not shy about stating my own beliefs and I don’t adhere to the idea that all beliefs are somehow all equally true. But there’s a difference between being willing to call it like I see it and feeling that I won’t be satisfied unless those around me, whether siblings, children, or friends, are atheists as well, or that it is my job to make them so.

Several of my adult siblings know that I am an atheist and have been amazingly cool with it. I’ll never forget the moment when I came out to the first of them.

Me: I don’t believe in God anymore.

Sibling: Then what do you believe in?

Me: I believe in love.

Sibling: Then I guess we believe in the same thing.

That – that - is my goal for my siblings.

About Libby Anne

Libby Anne grew up in a large evangelical homeschool family highly involved in the Christian Right. College turned her world upside down, and she is today an atheist, a feminist, and a progressive. She blogs about leaving religion, her experience with the Christian Patriarchy and Quiverfull movements, the detrimental effects of the "purity culture," the contradictions of conservative politics, and the importance of feminism.

  • Paula G V aka Yukimi

    Well said. I also feel that if people find comfort in religion and they aren’t hurting anyone by it, it would be cruel to try to get them to atheism no matter how ridiculous the idea of any type of god existing feels to me.

  • http://www.freeratio.org/ Brian63

    You had written:

    “Similarly, if I found a friend didn’t believe in LGBTQ rights, or thought abortion should be banned, or was in favor of the death penalty, those are all things I would feel the need to argue about, and those are the moments when I would try to change a friend’s mind.”

    What if you find out that your friend’s motivation for taking all those disagreeable positions on those issues was because of their religious beliefs? If you try to make secular-themed arguments on why gays should be permitted to marry to someone who deeper-down believes that they should not be married for religious reasons, then you are spending a lot of time whiffing on air. The advancement of civil rights and social progress in our world is heavily dependent on how much we can overcome the religious beliefs that are so deeply embedded in our culture, and so we have to go to the source.

    I can certainly sympathize with your statements though about wanting to not feel obligated to promote your beliefs, since much of your life was already done as such, and wanting to focus more on being a friend. There are atheists, however, that go further than that and criticize those of us who *do* make a point to make public criticisms of religious beliefs. Apparently they find inherent fault in people trying to promote a cause, regardless of what the cause is. I very much disagree with that. We should be more proactive in trying to achieve progress, not just waiting and hoping for it to happen on its own.

    Brian

    • http://patheos.com/blogs/lovejoyfeminism Libby Anne

      You are right that this is where it gets sticky. I don’t care if a friend believes in God – I may find their belief silly, of course – but I DO care if that person is a homophobe, and for many homophobia is linked to religious belief. This is where I would be willing to start combating their religious beliefs, but I think it’s important that a religious homophobe doesn’t have to become an atheist to stop being a homophobe, they just have to change their religious beliefs. For me the target would then be the beliefs I see as harmful, though obviously that can become more all encompassing.

      Like I said, my goal is for people to be caring, accepting, and supportive of equality and social justice. If getting a person to that point involves trying to push them toward atheism, okay, but it doesn’t have to. There are religious people and religious denominations that support LGBTQ rights, etc.

      But it does get complicated, you’re right. And I don’t condemn those atheists who DO make deconverting everyone their goal. I also have no problem with challenging the level of respect religion is given in our culture, and pointing out the silliness of religious ideas. Heck, I do those things myself.

      I guess it comes down to this: My goal is for people to be caring, accepting, and supportive of equality and social justice, and I’m willing to fight for that. Sometimes spreading those values means challenging religion, and when it does I’ll do so. But I think I somehow see those values themselves as more important than whether or not one believes in a God. At least, that’s my current thinking, anyway. :-P

    • Froborr

      There is a difference between being proactive and being invasive. Public criticism is one thing, that’s always fine. However, it is always a moral requirement to treat all people as people; public statements which dehumanize believers, violating the privacy of believers (for example, by going door to door, or by making pro-atheist declarations in spaces belonging to believers without at least implicit permission), and general dickishness are not fine. Taking someone who is doing no harm to others, and trying to turn them into something they are not without their permission? Maximally not fine.

      Which is why, unlike Libby-Anne, I do “condemn any atheists who make converting everyone their goal,” because reaching that goal requires treating believers as less than fully human.

      • http://patheos.com/blogs/lovejoyfeminism Libby Anne

        This is a good point, and I guess I would say I would condemn certain tactics. Christians can try to convert people in very obnoxious ways, and I don’t think that atheists should copy that. I guess I’d like to think that for my siblings who know I’m an atheist, I normalize the idea of nonbelief and challenge stereotypes, and that by being kind and compassionate and understanding I make myself available if they have any questions about it, or even themselves have doubts. It’s just that I’m not going to push my beliefs – or lack of belief – on them the way beliefs were pushed on me growing up. Challenge? Sure. Pressure, cajole, make that the center of our relationship? No!

  • http://www.freeratio.org/ Brian63

    On this issue, I have always found it helpful to compare a belief in a god to a belief in aliens. Whether a person believes that aliens do or do not exist is completely harmless. I may think one position is right and the other wrong, but neither one really matters in itself, in terms of helping or harming anything. Same with belief in god. On its own, it is a completely harmless belief.

    The problem comes when realizing that belief that a god exists very rarely is on its own. They are almost always coupled with other beliefs that indeed are more harmful. When a person thinks that aliens do exist, they do not then think that these aliens are the source of morality, that all humans should be obedient to the aliens, that our laws we pass should be based on writings the aliens pass down to us, and that children should be indoctrinated into believing all the same things about aliens. Somehow, people do just about all of that when it comes to belief in a god though. Belief in a god is more than just a passing scientific curiosity, it is an overarching way of life.

    To help with our progressive and secular causes, we could continue to make secular arguments for allowing gays to marry, women to have abortion, etc. As long as the people we are trying to convince though also hold the beliefs that a god exists and we are obligated to obey everything this god says (conveniently interpreted by the local priests and pastors), then we are effectively trying to convince them to disobey their god. I think we would have better luck convincing them that their god does not exist in the first place, rather than that they should disobey their god. Deconverting to atheism gets rid of a wide variety of religious-generated problems in one big swoop then, and I think it is more likely to work on people as well. There are of course plenty of secular problems in the world and I am not at all saying that religion causes all the world’s problems; just a disproportionate amount of them. In the long run at least, it seems like a more helpful strategy to try and reduce the power of religion in the world.

    Again though, I am saying this all more as just a general comment about the importance of criticizing religious beliefs, and am not targeting you personally. You gave very good and relatable reasons to want to focus your life on other matters at the moment. I just dislike when some atheists (not you, to my understanding) criticize “New Atheists” for trying to advance atheism.

    Brian

    • http://patheos.com/blogs/lovejoyfeminism Libby Anne

      “I just dislike when some atheists (not you, to my understanding) criticize “New Atheists” for trying to advance atheism.”

      Heck no! In fact, I would consider myself a new atheist. It’s just that I personally don’t feel called to work to deconvert more progressive religious friends and relatives (note the residual religious language there!) who have beliefs that don’t cause the harm that more fundamentalist religious beliefs do. For me, I’d rather focus more on legitimizing atheism and challenging the level of respect religion has in our culture, demystifying it, you might say. And since I have personal experience with the harm done by more fundamentalist beliefs and haven’t really suffered harm from progressive religious types, I focus on fighting those fundamentalist beliefs in particular. I see hatred and bigotry as the enemy. If every fundamentalist Christian became a progressive Christian, the world would be a better place. And anyway, I think the New Atheist movement needs people in all sorts of different roles; if everyone was doing the same exact thing, it’d be less effective.

      As for your alien example, I do think there are some religious individuals whose beliefs affect them very little beyond giving them a sense of inner peace and an added motivation for showing love and acceptance. Now again, I may still think those beliefs are silly and value skepticism, but I don’t see that person as someone I need to take on the way I would see someone with fundamentalist beliefs that are more overtly harmful.

      I’m probably not making complete sense here, but that may be because I’m still trying to sort out where I stand on this in my mind. :-P

      • http://patheos.com/blogs/lovejoyfeminism Libby Anne

        And also, as a Humanist I very highly value things like equality and social justice. If religious individuals want to work alongside me to forward these causes, I’m not going to say “no, I won’t work with you, I view you as someone with wrong beliefs that need to be corrected!” No, I’m going to say “welcome, we need everyone we can get.” That’s why I generally stick to attacking the religious beliefs I see as causing harm. Do all religious beliefs cause harm? I don’t think so, with one caveat: All religious beliefs do involve superstition, and that’s where I do understand why some atheists take a harder line than I do.

      • http://www.freeratio.org/ Brian63

        “I’m still trying to sort out where I stand on this in my mind.”

        A lot of us are trying to work on our own positions as well, as this is a tricky and complicated topic, as you have noted. In the past I have held positions similar to what Froborr above espouses too, but then I came to thinking more about that door-to-door example and realized that somebody knocking on my door and just inviting me to a church or asking if I want to have a conversation about Jesus is not really an invasion of my privacy. As long as they leave when I would politely decline, no big harm or foul. It would likewise not be such if an atheist did that. Additionally, atheists could even target just the residences of those religious people who they know are themselves going door-to-door, and leave everyone else out of it. I think that was actually done in real life by some with the “Kissing Hank’s Ass” routine:

        http://www.jhuger.com/kisshank

        There may be other good reasons why atheists should not evangelize in certain manners, such as that people may be annoyed by it, and many people will be more sympathetic to the atheists who are not annoying them than to the religious people who are.

        I do think there is a very reasonable ground that we can occupy. It requires a few changes though in outlooks that many people are resistant to adopt: We have to not look at a stranger knocking on our door and inviting us somewhere as an invasion of our privacy. At most it can be inconvenient or a little annoying, but that’s not so horrible. We also have to see that people promoting a cause is itself not something that is wrong. That is actually helpful in achieving progress. More atheists need to start realizing these as well.

        Brian

      • MadGastronomer

        Brian, just because you don’t think someone knocking on your door and inviting you to church or whatever is an invasion of privacy doesn’t mean everyone else agrees with me. I consider it an invasion of my privacy, no matter who does it. You’re just as much of a jerk if you do it as the JWs or Mormons are if they do. It is not treating people with respect.

    • W. Lotus

      “To help with our progressive and secular causes, we could continue to make secular arguments for allowing gays to marry, women to have abortion, etc. As long as the people we are trying to convince though also hold the beliefs that a god exists and we are obligated to obey everything this god says (conveniently interpreted by the local priests and pastors), then we are effectively trying to convince them to disobey their god. I think we would have better luck convincing them that their god does not exist in the first place, rather than that they should disobey their god.”

      My church takes a different tactic: we believe fundamentalist evangelical Christians of the anti-LGBT, anti-feminist, anti-social programs kind are already disobeying God by holding those views. Our radically inclusive, feminist, social justice focused church has plenty of scriptural evidence to back up our views. We would like other Christians to let go of what we see as erroneous doctrine and begin *obeying* God by adopting a progressive view.

      You are right, though: as long as they believe their views are the correct ones, it will be impossible for them to let go of them, because they will equate doing so with disobeying God.

      • http://www.freeratio.org/ Brian63

        Well, from what I have read in the Bible it appears to be a mix of views all along the spectrum, sometimes on the humanitarian end and sometimes on the fundamentalist authoritarian end, and various places in between. If a person adopts a worldview that incorporates feminism and social justice attitudes, it is better that they do so because they themselves favor those approaches based on the real world impacts they will have. They should not do so because this holy book commands it and they think they are supposed to obey whatever the book says. Do it because it is the right thing to do, not because you are following orders to do it. If the holy book explicitly said the opposite, if it explicitly called for more conservative fundamentalist policies, what would you do then? Do you just do whatever the book says to do, because you always obey the book, and you would do it regardless of what real-world impact it has? Is the latter irrelevant? People should make their choices based on their evaluation of the impact their choices will have on the world. It is very relevant. Religion inherently contains an unhealthy authoritarianism, even if the religion advocates more liberal and anti-authoritarian policies. Better to just get rid of the mess altogether.

        Brian

  • http://www.freeratio.org/ Brian63

    “That’s why I generally stick to attacking the religious beliefs I see as causing harm. Do all religious beliefs cause harm? I don’t think so, with one caveat: All religious beliefs do involve superstition, and that’s where I do understand why some atheists take a harder line than I do.”

    Some of us see the more liberal religious beliefs as *enablers* of the more fundamentalist religious beliefs, and so it is worthwhile to criticize those as well. That is probably a topic for another time though, and I really should get back to work (egad!). Good topic though Libby!

    Brian

    • MadGastronomer

      Just because you see it that way, doesn’t mean it actually is that way.

  • http://www.freeratio.org/ Brian63

    One last thing—

    The form of atheist evangelism that I personally undertake does not involve presenting myself to people in real life and trying to actively deconvert them. For the most part, it is just participating in online communities where religion is already discussed. Also, I do not press on individuals to deconvert. Because of how our brains are wired (and especially reinforced by religious habits), it is extremely rare for people to change their minds publicly on some issue after debating it with someone else. It does happen sometimes, but it is not good to make that your goal when going into a debate with another person. A much more practical use of a debate is to *expose* the arguments of the other person as being flawed, so that other people who are watching can see that the position is not as defensible as they had believed. The person you are debating will not likely admit error and then change his/her mind on the spot, but the lurkers will still see it and think about it, and sometime in the future may themselves change their mind. Christian evangelicals use the phrase “planting a seed” to describe their efforts, and it is one of the few things that the religion actually gets right. :)

    Brian

  • AnotherOne

    “Rather, my goal is that they be caring, compassionate, accepting, confident, independent thinkers who believe in equality and the value of humanity and are conscious of the importance of social justice.”

    The problem with this is that, admirable as all those traits are, you’re still engaging in goal-making for other people. You’re setting yourself up for problems down the road if your kids don’t meet the goals *you* have set for them.

    As parents I think it’s better to set goals only for ourselves. I have parenting goals–aspirations to model certain traits and to treat my children with fairness, respect, acceptance, consistency and love. The kind of people they ultimately become, and the values and beliefs they choose to take on, are up to them.

    • http://kagerato.net kagerato

      That’s rather bizarre, since all parents have some minimum standards (goals, you may say) they expect their children to meet. Wanting your children to be compassionate and independent thinkers is not setting the bar too high.

      • AnotherOne

        It’s probably just a matter of semantics, but I see goal-setting as a different thing than wanting. There are all kinds of things I want for my children. I want them to be compassionate, to be independent thinkers, to be happy, well-adjusted, able to provide for themselves, etc. And while they’re young, that translates into certain expectations that I hold them to. I But I don’t have *goals* for them. I don’t think it’s healthy or realistic to set goals for other people.

        This is probably just me being hyper-allergic to being raised the way I was, but to me, whenever someone starts talking about goals for their adult children, I break out in the emotional equivalent of hives. In the end, we can only control ourselves. I think looking at parenting as an outcome-based endeavor is intrinsically flawed–human beings aren’t an inert medium to work with. In fact, I think a lot of the problem with fundamentalist parenting is that it’s based on the biblical model of God as a potter and human beings as clay. Parents think they can mold their kids like so much inert clay, and that’s not how it works.

        I look at parenting as a process. In the end, all I can offer my kids is what I offer other people–my best shot at loving and accepting them, treating them fairly, consistently and respectfully, and drawing healthy boundaries when they don’t do the same in return. Of course, my kids’ get a much higher concentration of me, and a much greater slice of my love and physical and emotional and time investment than anyone else. But they’re not mine to control or mold or set goals for–that becomes more and more apparent the older they get. And good parenting, I think, is partly comprised of being ok with that.

        But like I said, it’s probably primarily a semantic difference.

  • http://nojesusnopeas.blogspot.com James Sweet

    To be perfectly honest, I’d be a little disappointed if either of my sons grew up to become theists, even if they still were “caring, compassionate, accepting, confident, independent thinkers who believe in equality and the value of humanity and are conscious of the importance of social justice.” The latter is far more important to me than their metaphysical beliefs, mind you — i.e. I’d much rather have my sons be caring, compassionate, etc. Christians than have them turn out to be misogynistic, selfish, uncaring atheists. But getting it right on the metaphysics matters to me too, and I’m not going to deny that it matters to me.

    And anyway, I think some of it is a matter of degree here. LibbyAnne, you talk about how much your choice strained your relationship with your parents, particularly your father. My kids’ metaphysical beliefs matter to me, but they don’t matter nearly to that degree. If either of my boys grew up to be a liberal Christian, I’d roll my eyes, I’d think he was being a bit silly, and I’d probably try to avoid having either of us bring it up at Thanksgiving… but it wouldn’t really affect my relationship with him in any ways other than that (unless he became all proseltyze-y and stuff, in which case I’d have to say that would be his fault…)

  • http://www.freeratio.org/ Brian63

    MadGastronomer,

    On the matter of whether knocking door-to-door constitutes an invasion of privacy or not, I do not want to derail this blog entry and so started a discussion on the FRDB forum, and you are welcome to read or post as you like.

    http://www.freeratio.org/showthread.php?t=314186

    Brian

  • smrnda

    Some people I know seem to partition their ideas about public policy from their private religious beliefs, and I find it an admirable trait, though I think it might have to do with the fact that I live in a pretty liberal area and a socially conservative Christian bent on a culture-war type agenda would become pretty unpopular pretty fast.

    As for goal-setting, you can’t totally avoid it since to some extent just hoping your kids survive childhood alive or don’t wind up in prison is a ‘goal’ of sorts, but you can keep it to a minimum and the qualities you’ve named leave a lot of room for your kids to make their own decisions.

    As far as debate, I don’t think people change their mind in debates ever since they’re basically contests where nobody wants to give the impression of backing down; in some ways I feel that debates on God, particularly Christianity are ‘dead’ the way chess is ‘dead’ according to some Grand Masters; all the moves and strategies are pretty well mapped out so not much new is ever said. Online nobody is likely to change their mind just out of a need to ‘win.’ If people change their opinions, it probably happens slowly. Plus, religious people are usually part of communities and deconverting can be socially disastrous for some people.

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