On Atheism and Parenting: An Interview with George Waye

On Atheism and Parenting: An Interview with George Waye June 14, 2012

This is the fourth conversation and sixth overall post of the Camels With Hammers blogathon for the Secular Student Alliance. See links to the many diverse conversations from the blogathon, updated throughout the day, at the blogathon conversation table of contents.

This discussion is with George Waye, author of the blog Misplaced Grace, and probably the first person to become a Camels With Hammers enthusiast, back in the summer of 2009. The conversation begins with his self description which led us, to my surprise, into an entire blog post on atheism and parenting.

George Waye: Who really likes talking about themselves? I’m a father to five wonderful kids; boys age 12, almost 8, and 4- girls aged 6 and 6 months. My kids go to Catholic school. My oldest son is an atheist (Thank you Rick Riordan!), my 7 year old is already beginning to talk about things he is learning that don’t add up. If I was going to choose one kid who will grow up to be religious, it would be him- which is why I find his revelations noteworthy.

My wife, like I suppose most wives, thinks I am pretty average. She finds it difficult to believe that anyone might want my opinion on anything- since she has to labour through it on a daily basis. She is decidedly not a “nerd” or “geek”- and she finds those parts of my personality simultaneously frightening and endearing. When we met she was staunchly Catholic- but years of me chatting about religion (and reading God Is Not Great- because we got rained in at the cottage two summers ago and it was the only book handy) have left her being more ardently anti-theistic than I am.
See that? I managed to use 200 words and barely tell you anything about me.

I’m a relatively recent atheist, when I first came to your blog back in 2009 I was uncomfortably shedding the last of my Christianity. I had a period of about three years where I was still a cultural Christian- but I wavered between ambivalent belief and atheism. That was about 2005, and it was spurred on by my experiences moving from devout Christianity to being an active member of my church and really getting involved in youth ministry. The more you need to talk about faith and address others concearns, the more you feel bombarded by unanswerable questions.

I grew up in a culturally Christian family, became devout slowly starting about age 13 and culminating in High School, almost went to seminary school- then decided that my faith wasn’t strong enough and took a few years to think about what I wanted to do with my life.

As I mentioned to you previously, I would have been a cultural Christian even today if it had not been for a very close friend telling me that I could not be a Christian and believe in evolution. I went online, trying to square my education with my faith- trying to answer his propaganda with facts. I found a Christian whose site seemed to allow for both evolution and God. I found a comment there from some guy named Dan- which led me to your blog- which really became a defining moment in my life.

You and a Calvinist would tug over my ideology for several months, but I eventually let go of my faith. I didn’t have a religious epiphany- I went quiet. I don’t have a glamerous job, certainly not one that qualifies me as an expert on anything (I sell cars).

My brother is marrying a Muslim, and I have been increasingly interested in the Quaran and Islamic culture. I plan on blogging more about that, but the wedding is this coming weekend and I wanted to give my thoughts after seeing things firsthand.

I have been trying (as best as time allows) to get a freethought/atheist community group running in my hometown of North Bay, Ontario. I have a website- and enough members that we can still split a combo platter at a restaurant and not be hungry. So, yeah….not good.

FYI- the blog I found you on is He Lives by David Heddle.

Daniel Fincke: I am actually pretty delighted you found me in that He Lives thread because I remember that day really well and being frustrated that I was trying to lure the commenters on the blog to answer me on my blog and move the discussion there since I was duplicating each comment on both his comment thread and my blog. And so in retrospect, I have always winced a bit about that the desperate and failed lengths I was going to build my own blog. So it is good news indeed that that dragged you on over! This will make for a great excuse to link to those posts of mine and get them some attention now that I have an audience. I was really proud of the substance of what I was saying that day. So, everyone, BEHOLD, the posts which made George Waye a huge Camels With Hammers fan:

What’s Wrong With Religious Scientists
In What Sense Religious Scientists Shouldn’t Exist
More Thoughts on Scientists In the Public Square
When Should A Scientist’s Faith Discredit Him From Scientific Institutional Authority?

So, George, the first thing that popped out at me when I read your bio was that you had 5 kids! I did not know that. I think in all the photos I’ve seen there is only one or two at a time and I never paid attention to whether they were all different. So that must be a handful. What’s it like? Are you done now or do you plan to have more? Did you intend to have so many to start with?

George Waye: I tell people the same thing every time I’m asked- and believe me, when you have five kids….you get asked! Having five kids I find easier than one. When you have one child- you are the center of their Universe. You are their only source of socialization, and that is a full time job. When you have five, the kids play with each other. Me and my wife get more time together with five than we did with one.

I think I knew when I was pretty young that I wanted a family, maybe three kids or so. It has always been a priority for me. Once you have a couple, I think you instinctively know the right number of kids to have. We decided on five, three boys, two girls. I’m glad my wife loves kids as much as I do.

The best thing about kids is that they are all so different. There are so many dynamic personality styles that you become closely acquainted with. It really tunes you in to how to communicate with different people. With friends, you tend toward people who compliment you- same with your wife (to a lesser degree). You don’t get to choose your kids- and that makes for a lot of teaching moments for all of us. The worst thing about having a big family is constantly being asked if you are like the Duggars, or if you are operating a baby factory on orders from the Pope. It is not a popular choice among non-religious people….

Daniel Fincke: Are you saying you’re sense that non-religious people question the choice to have so many kids in general? Or is it just a negative association that makes them worry a minute that you might be a fundamentalist? Or is it that you think they worry your wife might be constrained in her career options due to all that is involved with birthing and raising so many kids, and they assume traditional parenting roles are at work and there are disproportionate burdens on her?

George Waye: I think it’s all of those things. I think there is more to it though. Our society has, over the last few decades, been thankfully able to shed the expectation (bordering on obligation) to have a “standard family unit”. Families are far smaller today then they were say 50 years ago. I think people today are having the family that they want, not the one they are expected to have. Women work outside the home, and form their own extra-familial goals and aspirations. These are good things, but those trends naturally lend themselves to less children.

I’m a pretty active parent. I do quite a bit of the day to day work involved with parenting kids. The world is a different place than it was 40 years ago. I don’t sit in a chair reading the newspaper with a pipe in my mouth, totally oblivious to the labors of raising kids. I think when both parents work outside the home and you have a sizable family- you find ways to make it work.

The odd sense I get is that people feel you need some outside pressure to want a large family. Like no person would actually DECIDE to have a big family, so the reasons must be religious or cultural. If I hear one more atheist pipe up that having a large family is selfish because the world is going to end I think I might scream.

Listen, we all ought to be in tune with the challenges facing our environment over the next several years. To me, the argument seems to be a post-hoc reason to be childless (or have less kids). I honestly can’t see a mass swath of people who are dying to have 4 or more kids making a decision like that as a conscious sacrifice. If you were really that serious about making sacrifices, you’d be living in the woods “off the grid” tending to your organic garden, not furiously typing on your Macbook Air or IPhone over a Starbucks latte you drove 20 Km to buy how selfish I am for having a big family. Those people need to just go back to composting their trash (we do that), recycling (that,too), and putting in compact florescent lightbulbs (every one in our house) so they can feel like they are saving the world.

Daniel Fincke: Does this cause you to worry that there is something anti-institutional about atheism that goes even beyond religion to the family? Obviously countless atheists marry and have children and atheists are among those agitating for LGBT access to marriage and children. But is there a drift here? Is there some way that atheists are not deliberately focusing on “family values” in a way to compensate for the loss of what people get from church values? Or is that not a big deal. As atheists should we debate the general merits of having children or not and marrying or not? Or is this something we should take as an entirely personal matter that no one should ever talk about in general value terms?

George Waye: Sure. I think that as a movement we are trying to define ourselves. Part of that is going to be defining what we are, and some of that will be defining what we are not. I think that we still see the value of institutions like marriage or family, but I think rational people understand that those things are personal choices and preferences. Marriage is not a Holy Grail and neither is a nuclear family. I think we can see the value- and even affirm and discuss the value- without those conversations passing judgement on those whose lives take a different course.

What gives marriage or family value are the same things that give philanthropy, community service, friendship and activism value. They are making a commitment to a world greater than yourself. So I don’t think we should avoid talking about the value of family, marriage, activism, etc.
Where we go wrong is too often talking about traditional extra-personal commitment as being sacrosanct and not seeing the parallel ways that people can achieve the same goals.

Daniel Fincke: What is your philosophy on discussing religion with your kids? Do you talk to them about their atheism? Do they identity as atheists and if so does this affect their interactions with other kids or adults at all? Have you had any conflicts with family over their desires to see your kids raised religious?

George Waye: I think kids approach you when they are ready. We don’t proselytize to our kids. My oldest son is an atheist- but I don’t feel we actively made him so. He goes to a Catholic school, as do all of our kids. I’m comfortable with that. I think kids raised in secular homes where religion is a non-issue will tend to be awestruck by the majesty and mystery of faith when they are older. That certainly happened to me. I think exposing them to as many ideas as possible makes them explore possibility.

My son read the “Percy Jackson” series by Rick Riordan, and I think the juxtaposition of mythology with what he was learning in religion classes made him connect the dots. He just came out and said to me one day in the car “I don’t think God is real” and I let him go through his reasoning for it. We have since talked about WHY people seek out religion, and discussed how to be sensitive to other peoples beliefs but still feeling safe to challenge those ideas.

My wife’s step-mother is devoutly Catholic, and she is disappointed we don’t take the kids to Church. We are careful to make sure that she doesn’t have the only voice on a topic with our kids, and those would be the times I feel comfortable actively talking to my kids about religious ideas.

Daniel Fincke: I admit I am a little more interested than most atheists in seeing atheist parents proactively encourage atheism. I want them to show their kids the flaws with religious beliefs directly for a specific reason and that is that religious beliefs exploit cognitive biases and fallacious habits of reasoning. They are seductive.

Natural human reason needs to be actively corrected for, no less in training someone to think about matters religion dominates than matters that science properly covers. I would want to proactively teach my kids, were I to have them, about logic, about cognitive biases, and about the ways that specifically faith based believing are easy traps to fall into that need to be avoided. I don’t like the idea of leaving kids to think that authoritarian sources of knowledge in matters of ethics and metaphysics and epistemology are even a serious option. Do you think that is too dogmatic of me?

George Waye:  I can’t say I think that’s dogmatic, so long as the philosophy extends itself beyond the scope of religion. And I think in many ways, I have done that with my kids. I have challenged them to question why they believe certain things. I have told them purposeful “tall tales” to train them to be incredulous with reason. I want my kids- more so with religion than anything else- to connect those dots on their own. I think when people make their own conclusions based on their own thought processes, the conclusions tend to stick better and be less likely to be easily countered.

Don’t misread me- I talk openly about religion and atheism with my kids. I just tend toward waiting for them to start the conversation. Let them plant the seed, and I’m just here to help that idea flower under the best possible conditions.

I think I’ve always worried that if I tried too hard, I’d give them the impression that there is something dangerous about religious ideas- that there is something worth suppressing in them. In reality, it is the lazy thought that is dangerous, not the ideas. The ideas are just silly.

I think that the difference between proselytizing to your kids and seizing on teaching opportunities is how broad the lesson is. Telling your kids not to be questioning about the Bible but simultaneously ignorantly suspect of evolution is proselytizing- telling your kids to ask themselves certain questions before assuming something is true is education. Big difference.

As an aside, to me raising kids is not something I spend time blogging about. I think this is because I think of it as being a very pedestrian, uninteresting topic. I want to change that in the future, but I constantly argue internally about the problems with invading my own- and more so my kids and wife’s- privacy. It’s delicate, but I’d like to start doing it in some capacity.

Daniel Fincke: I don’t think it’s uninteresting at all to blog about parenting and kids. I think it is absolutely vital to the irreligious community that we provide substantive infrastructure for each other that provides an alternative to the church. Too many people are happily irreligious in their college years and early twenties, then get married, and hand their kids off to churches for values instruction and for indoctrination in whatever the church wants to tell them. It’s a disaster! We need resources that help people stay independent of authoritarian institutions. We need to combat that insecurity that has them give over their kids’ minds and hearts to people who don’t know what they are doing to them.

So, we need atheist parenting blogs, conventions, magazines, and real world groups.
George Waye: In many ways I agree. I think we did too much trial and error with our oldest son. We got exceptionally lucky at times. My oldest was very early on interested in astronomy and the sciences. We stumbled across the right resources more often than actually seeking them out and finding them. I wish there had been blogs and magazines and resources like that when we resolved to raise kids to be skeptical. Perhaps as a parent I’m too hypercritical of my own style of parenting to have the requisite confidence to prescribe it to others.
Daniel Fincke: Well the only people who are experts in parenting are the people without kids.
George Waye: HaHaHa. It seems that way, doesn’t it?
Daniel Fincke: If you ever need advice, I have a nice armchair I like to sit in and I can dispense some parenting guidance.
George Waye: Parents- all parents- to some degree lack that perspective, to step back and say “you know what? I’m doing some things here that others can successfully use, too.” It would be great to be in regular contact with other atheist parents.
See? I really do need to get my ass in gear!
I think you walk into parenting with lofty expectations. Once you realize that reality isn’t going to bend to your will, you find interesting ways to get from point A to point B, and the detours are as much an learning experience for you as they are for your kids.
There is no “right way” to parent kids. Your not going to find a textbook that makes it simple and easy. The trick is to set goals and keep track of what works and what doesn’t. You need to realize how very different each of your kids really are. They aren’t you, and they are not like their siblings. My oldest son is very analytical, methodical, and rational. This was a blessing (can I use that word without the religious garbage that tags along?) for my wife and I. We didn’t have to swim upstream to instil those values that make him a natural skeptic. My second oldest is emotional, self-critical, and has an inflated sense of “fair play”. Those are all great traits to have, but they require some training to use them constructively.
He has one of the most awe inspiring senses of empathy I have ever come across. He loves jokes, and he will work for hours trying to deconstruct humour and make new jokes. He is going to be a master communicator, given the right tools and support. What works for my oldest didn’t work for my second. What is working for my second will not work for my daughters. Parenting is about trying to see the world through a different set of eyes, and I think it makes us better people. I see myself in both of my older boys, and I see where we are so unbelievably different.
Being a parent is the best kind of selfish….
Daniel Fincke: And given your qualms about privacy and blogging, how do you handle it when you do talk about them? Do you have any guidelines? Do you talk to them first before talking about them publicly?
George Waye: I’m careful not to say much of anything that I feel might be an unfair infringement on their privacy. I actually thought of giving them pseudonyms- but since I blog without pseudonymity, I imagine that someone could easily use that information for the worse. I mention them in comments more than posting about them, but again, I want to try and change that habit. I think I would approach my kids if I felt a topical post would possibly make them feel uncomfortably exposed- but that hasn’t happened yet.

For more of George, please read Misplaced Grace

See links to the many diverse conversations from the blogathon, updated throughout the day, at the blogathon conversation table of contents.

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