Sometimes atheists who hear my story respond by saying “wouldn’t it be great if your whole family deconverts?” The first time someone said this, my gut response surprised me, because it told me something I didn’t realize. You see, I honestly don’t care whether or not my siblings become atheists, and I feel the same way regarding my children. I do, however, care a great deal about whether they are caring, compassionate, loving people who do good and not harm to both others and themselves. I’m finding myself more and more drawn to the Wiccan Rede: “An it harm none, do what ye will.” Let me explain how I have arrived at this point.
I grew up in a conservative evangelical home where absolute obedience and adherence to the family party line was held up as extremely important. There wasn’t much allowance at all for independence or thinking for yourself. We were always pushed in one direction. Only one view was seen as acceptable When I broke out of all of that the thing I clung to the tightest was the value of being an independent thinker and forming one’s own beliefs.
Some of my siblings have begun asking questions. If I were to pressure them to adopt my beliefs regarding religion I would be repeating my parents’ mistake. I can’t and won’t do that. I want my siblings – and my children – to think things through for themselves and come to their own, independent beliefs. I would much rather someone believe differently from me but have come to their views themselves than for someone to believe exactly as I do because it’s what I told them to believe. And coming from my background, this is revolutionary.
There’s something else, though. After growing up surrounded by complete and total certainty, I don’t want to reject one illusion of certainty for another. I don’t believe in a god. I’m pretty sure no god or gods exist. But I also know that the moment I close the door to the possibility that I am wrong, I risk creating my own dogma. No matter how sure I am of a given position, I try to view everything I believe as tentative and open to revision based on future information and experiences.
I see life as a journey, not a destination. Similarly, I see asking questions as more important than having the answers. I would rather admit that I don’t know everything than deceive myself into thinking that I do. And you know what? Life is more interesting this way.
Instead of trying to win converts – or, rather, deconverts – I crave an open and honest exchange of ideas. This exchange may change either of those involved, or more likely both. But the important part is that it’s not about trying to make the other believe what you do but rather about working to share, listen, and build mutual understanding. It’s about two people discussing what they believe and why, one speaking, then the other, and both learning from each other.
Having said all of this, I do care very much whether someone’s beliefs cause themselves or those around them harm. I believe strongly in equality, in social justice, and in caring for our planet. I don’t care a fig whether or not my siblings or children become atheists. I do, however, desire that they be caring, compassionate, civic individuals.
I openly and without reservation combat ideas like sexism, racism, classism, and homophobia, whether these ideas are rooted in religion or in simple prejudice. I openly and without reservation combat religious doctrines that cause harm, especially those that give women a second class status, those that mandate that children be beaten or deprived of medical care, and those that are used to control people. Further, I hold religious leaders who spend their lives telling others what to think in utter contempt. I will stand in opposition to those who try to force their religious beliefs on others, especially when they seek to use the government to do so.
I guess what I’m saying is that I don’t see religion in and of itself as a problem. Instead, I see blind acceptance and being told what to think as a problem, and I see beliefs that cause others harm, like homophobia or sexism, as a problem. While these things can and often do suffuse religion, they don’t always, and they can exist outside of religion as well.
As the Wiccan Rede says, an it harm none, do what ye will. I like that.